Review: THE HANDMAID'S TALE, English National Opera, London Coliseum

A much anticipated revival for the ENO's 2022 hit production

By: Feb. 02, 2024
Review: THE HANDMAID'S TALE, English National Opera, London Coliseum

Review: THE HANDMAID'S TALE, English National Opera, London Coliseum I am still chilled by a throwaway comment from my brother who said, “It’s different for you - you don’t have a daughter”. It is different for girls, extremely so in Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalypse dystopia, Gilead, but - and this chill ran down my spine more than once in the production’s two and a half hours run time - not as different in 2024 as it was in 1986 when the novel was published.

A woman has escaped from her servitude long enough to record cassette tapes detailing her ordeal in the fascist state that has emerged from the environmental, social and political implosion of the United States. With the Old Testament as inspiration, men have circumscribed the autonomy of women to a bare minimum (as is the case today in some parts of the world) and overlain that tyranny with a near-worship of fertility - women are for babies or else forced labour in the colonies. Handmaids, whose capacity to have children is evidenced by their child-bearing in “The Time Before”, are shorn of their names, raped by men whose wives are barren and condemned to a life of surrogacy and misery.

Annilise Miskimmin’s 2022 ENO production of Paul Ruders’ 2000 opera is back for its first revival, allowing many who missed its first run to make good on a promise to see it if it came back - I know, I’m one. Crucially, Kate Lindsey is back too, whose icy beauty, captivating mezzo-soprano and huge stage presence finds both the guilty aesthetic pleasure and heartbreaking poignancy in an often harsh score as Offred, the voice on the tapes and our protagonist. Though her character is often flattened by the horrors inflicted on her in Gilead, Lindsey continually finds, in both her acting and singing, a quiet defiance, (sometimes more than that) and in a denouement that has echoes of Tosca, you can’t help thinking that her spirit will triumph.

Review: THE HANDMAID'S TALE, English National Opera, London Coliseum

It’s when Lindsey is not the centre of our attention that one notices the flaws in Paul Bentley’s uneven libretto. Too many other characters are underwritten from the tragic Ofwarren (Rhian Lois) to the feisty runaway Moira (Nadine Benjamin) to the unapologetic Commander (James Creswell). All sing beautifully of course, but the technical proficiency cannot inject opera’s essential emotions into the roles because there just isn’t enough there with which to work. The Commander appears to be developing a relationship with Offred akin to that of Thomas Jefferson with Sally Hemings, especially in a deliciously transgressive game of Scrabble, but we don’t really know enough about him and it’s gone in the blinking of an eye.

The exception is another returnee from a couple of years ago, Avery Amereau as Serena Joy, an telly-evangelist from The Time Before and the Commander’s unhappy wife. Looking like Mad Men’s Betty Draper in her idealised 1950s domestic goddess outfits, Amereau finds the loneliness that drives her vicious cruelty towards the handmaids who service her husband in ways that she cannot. It’s in this complexity that the singing lines up with the music and storytelling, and one sees opera’s alchemy do its work.

The other character that succeeds alongside the Commander's two antagonistic women is the chorus. Working within Annemarie Woods’ arresting design with its limited colour pallet and its ‘already dead’ shrouds for the handmaids, the chorus provide musical and visual context, representing the masses on whom this misery is inflicted, the dispossessed, distraught and disinherited of this brave new world of Gilead. The return to mediaeval justice (Atwood was inspired by the jurisprudence of the USA’s founding Puritans) is driven home by their mass lynching of a handmaid and wife under the approving eyes of the secret police. Sisterhood only goes so far in a world unmoored from any collective humanistic morality.

When one reads of the pushing back on women’s rights in 2020s USA, the explosion of misogyny, loud and proud, online and the Far-Right’s sinister call for women (white women) to have more babies as a kind of patriotic duty, one wonders how this opera will play in another 24 years time. We probably won’t be living in a recognisable version of Gilead, but women today are being ushered, nay prodded, into its arrival hall and not just in the world’s near totalitarian patriarchal theocracies. I mean right here, right now.     

The Handmaid's Tale is at the London Coliseum until 15 February      

Photo Credits: Zoe Martin