English National Opera: The Handmaid’s Tale

Poul Ruders
The Handmaid’s Tale [sung in English with surtitles]

Offred – Kate Lindsey
Aunt Lydia – Emma Bell
Serena Joy – Avery Amereau
The Commander – Robert Hayward
Ofglen – Elin Pritchard
New Ofglen Annabella – Vesela Ellis
Luke – John Finden
Offred’s mother – Susan Bickley
Moira – Pumeza Matshikiza
Janine/Ofwarren – Rhian Lois
Nick – Frederick Ballentine
Doctor – Alan Okie
Rita – Madeleine Shaw

Professor Pieixoto – Camille Cottin [acting role]

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Joana Carneiro

Annilese Miskimmon – Director
Annemarie Woods – Designer
Paule Constable – Lighting
Akhila Krishnan – Video
Yvonne Gilbert – Sound
Imogen Knight – Movement

5 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 8 April, 2022
Venue: The Coliseum, London

A birthing table, an insemination desk and a prayer machine are just three of the disquieting accessories making their appearance on the Coliseum stage. Then there’s the Wall, its sinister presence (albeit a memorial rather than a public hanging place) behind an imprisoning curtain a warning for those who transgress the repressive and futuristic Gilead of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of 1985. Set in twenty-first-century North America, The Handmaid’s Tale is brilliantly transformed by Poul Ruders, while Paul Bentley’s faithful libretto condenses the opera into two Acts with a Prologue.

Brutal totalitarianism and private tragedy form the core of this chillingly prophetic tale that has more than a few parallels today with extremist and misogynistic regimes. Framed by an academic conference in the year 2195 we encounter Professor Pieixoto (actress Camille Cottin) leading a study of the former Republic of Gilead established by Christian fundamentalists following an ecological disaster that caused tumbling birth-rates. In its Taliban-like regime women are denied education, property and rights, and those of suitable age are indoctrinated to become breeders for childless households.  Once a month these Handmaids perform their productive function lying between husband and wife, recalling the handmaid in Genesis who fulfils this role for the barren Rachel. 

The opera premiered in 2000 (in Copenhagen) before coming to ENO three years later. This new production, with a reorchestrated score and tweaked dramatic structure, is a first from the company’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon, and what a powerful directorial debut it is. Annemarie Woods’s designs and Paule Constable’s lighting effects also leave memorable impressions. At the work’s centre is Kate Lindsey as Offred whose husband and daughter (seen in videoed flashbacks) have been snatched from her prior to her confinement at the Red Centre as a handmaiden. Lindsey inhabits this role with astonishing conviction consistently holding the eye with her meek, sunken demeanour, yet singing with clarity and heart-easing tenderness with Elin Pritchard’s submissive Ofglen, and no more so than her poignant second-Act duet with her younger persona. But there’s defiance too and an emotional reawakening initiated by her trysts with chauffeur Nick (“You can’t cheat Nature”) admirably sung by Frederick Ballentine.

 There’s a startling performance from Emma Bell as the obsessive Aunt Lydia, whose stratospheric contours shock with their fanatical intensity. Her coloratura is balanced by the rich contralto of Avery Amereau’s Serena Joy – the childless wife of Robert Hayward’s stiff-mannered Commander. Elsewhere, Alan Oke and John Finden give persuasive cameos as a lecherous doctor and an ardent Luke, while Rhian Lois as Ofwarren gives birth amidst the glare of other handmaidens who glide across the stage like a flotilla of Dutch sails. A glitzy brothel, Jezebel’s, adds striking colour, its resistance mirrored in the character of Pumeza Matshikiza’s rebellious Moira. Nothing is left to the imagination in the grotesque hanging scene, its terrifying reminder of state-sanctioned execution given searing intensity with a Bach chorale embedded into Ruders’s eclectic and highly communicative music, perfectly tailored to each dramatic situation. ENO’s Chorus and Orchestra are superbly conducted by Joana Carneiro.

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