The Handmaid’s Tale at English National Opera

‘I don’t want to be a dancer, my feet in the air, my head a faceless oblong of white cloth.  I don’t want to be a doll hung up on the Wall, I don’t want to be a wingless angel.  I want to keep on living, in any form.  I resign my body freely, to the uses of others.’

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, when Offred and Ofglen pass the Wall where the bodies of murdered women hang ‘like dead butterflies’ – alongside the homosexuals executed for ‘gender treachery’ and the doctors with signs of foetuses hanging around their necks, killed for carrying out abortions or prescribing contraception – Ofglen remarks, “Let that be a reminder to us”.  Does she mean that the dead traitors should serve as a warning of the need for obedience, or of the imperative for underground rebellion?  The ghastly image seems to emphasise the futility of death, but is the ‘life at all costs’ that Offred chooses any better?

The chilling image which opens Annilese Miskimmon’s new production of Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale at English National Opera aptly reminds us of these ambiguities.  Above the bare Coliseum stage, a haunting ensemble of handmaids’ habits is suspended – fragile, red (symbolic of fertility and death), and empty, the women’s identities wiped out by Gilead, though, as Offred herself muses, while the bags over their heads make them ‘a zero’, if you look hard enough their facial features seem to linger beneath.

Kate Lindsey (c) Catherine Ashmore

Annemarie Woods’s minimalist designs emphasise both this anonymity and the whispering that cannot be entirely expunged by the tyranny and torture of Gilead’s patriarchal regime, though the Wall itself seems more a memorial monument than persuasive propaganda to encourage self-regulation.  Tall perimeter curtains make a prison of the Coliseum stage and confirm the claustrophobia of this autocratic world.  A foreshortening half-curtain is dropped mid-stage to intensify the scenes of intimacy.  It also serves as a screen for Akhila Krishnan’s monochrome video projections which offer a flickering montage of the Time Before – the years of Offred’s mother’s second-wave feminism, Offred’s own married life and motherhood – helpfully enhancing our awareness of the memories of the past and how things have changed that persistently torment Offred in the novel, an aspect of her ironic, analytical, self-critical narrative that evidences her growing political awareness and which is necessarily simplified in the opera libretto.  

The black-and-white film also contextualises one of the opera’s most powerful structural features: the painful replaying in Offred’s mind of the moment when her five-year-old daughter was snatched and her husband shot.  Anxious that her memory of Luke will fade, in the novel Offred describes her mental images as being mirages, ‘flickering like the images of saints’.  The harrowing dramatic enactment of the narrative’s circular interiority is brilliantly done in Miskimmon’s production, the moment of separation heightened by the sudden violent surge of rising orchestral sound.  Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro shapes such musico-psychological realism brilliantly and throughout draws wonderfully vivid playing from the ENO musicians, the eclectic score driving forward with ceaseless dynamism. 

Emma Bell (c) Catherine Ashmore

The meeting between Offred and her Double is similarly powerful and affecting, and, as the sung stichomythia builds in rhythmic intensity until the two vocal lines are overlayed, it both dramatises and allows us to enter the protagonist’s interiority.  Kate Lindsey, who gives a stunning performance as Offred, seems to have pre-recorded the part of Offred’s past self and, seemingly glimpsed behind the film screen, the latter is a disturbing, liminal figure, simultaneously real and unreal.  Offred’s memory of her daughter, ‘Sometimes she’s holding her one-eyed blue rabbit’, is both sweet and painful, accompanied by a soaring solo violin.  Just as tangible is Offred’s moment of imagined tender interaction with her daughter, with young Elspeth Macdonald threatening to become the star of the show.

Atwood’s novel plunges the reader immediately into another world.  The opening scene is set in what was previously a gymnasium and is now a sleeping area in a women’s centre overseen by anonymous Aunts who enforce the oppressive regulations with electric cattle-prods.  The narrative presents a litany of change and loss, of ‘what had once been’.  It is not until the end of the novel that a structural shift reveals that the world, and consciousness, that we have inhabited for nearly three hundred pages is itself ‘the past’, and that what we have read is actually a transcript by one Professor Pieixoto which he has delivered at the Conference on Gileadean Studies nearly two hundred years later.  Paul Bentley’s libretto employs a framing device which sacrifices the disconcerting irony and reshaping of the reader’s relationship to the subjective narrative that the novel’s epilogue, ‘Historical Notes’, achieves.  A banner spans the stage: ‘International Historical Association Convention, 20-25 June 2195, Twelfth Symposium on the Republic of Gilead (Formerly the United States of America)’.  The opera audience effectively become attendees at that academic conference, assembled to watch the tapes that Professor Pieixoto has discovered.

Camille Cottin (c) Catherine Ashmore

Given that opera must show rather than tell, it’s a convincing theatrical device, albeit one that shifts the emphasis from the personal to the communal.  But, there’s a false note in Miskimmon’s production, for French actress Camille Cottin is cast as the white-suited Professor Pieixoto, eradicating the irony of Atwood’s novel in which the male Professor – whose Keynote Address is littered with misogynistic ‘jokes’ – arrogantly appropriates Offred’s voice and denies her identity by, in a parody of Gilead itself, editing his transcripts into a ‘coherent’ narrative and naming it ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.

The fictional Offred can be problematic for a reader, seeming passive at times, knowingly unreliable as a narrator with a penchant for linguistic games and word play.  In the opera, though, while we are more distanced from Offred’s interior consciousness, we are more physically involved in her experience, and American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey – making her ENO debut in what may well turn out to be a career-defining performance – gives an astonishingly visceral performance of enormous emotional impact.  But, if the sheer brutality and horror of Offred’s experience is laid bare, Lindsey also capture the poignancy of the quieter, introspective moments, as when, in the doctor’s office, Offred’s feelings about her inability to conceive the Commander’s child, “Every moon I watch for blood, and every moon blood appears, dark tears of failure”, are revealed.  Lindsey’s vocal control and stamina are stunning: we feel every ounce of Offred’s desolation but also sense her ultimate denial of Gilead’s determination to destroy her spirit. 

Avery Amereau and Kate Lindsey (c) Catherine Ashmore

American contralto Avery Amereau is similarly superb as the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, her dark voice possessive and dismissive, her pale-blue Alice-band ironically connoting the Virgin Mary and also reflecting her frigidity and frozen emotions.   The Aunts are led by Emma Bell’s ferocious Aunt Lydia, whose stratospheric coloratura vocal line is as piercing and taut as a steel wire but who, when joining in the singing of hymns, ironically proves capable of sweet sincerity.  Bell whips up a terrifying tension, viciously relishing her control and seeming to believe her own mantra that past freedoms were in fact anarchy, that ‘freedom to’ has been replaced by freedom ‘from’.  Indeed, at times she seems to convince the handmaidens too that they are protected by restriction, as in the brutal Particicution scene when the latter beat to death a Guardian accused of rape. 

The plush brightness of Pumeza Matshikiza’s soprano captures Moira’s subversiveness and energy, confirming her refusal to submit and be diminished.  Offred’s mother’s feminist activism and ideology – and Offred’s uncomfortable response to them – are diminished in the opera, but Susan Bickley makes much of the cameo role.  Janine/Ofwarren is a more sympathetic figure in the opera, and Rhian Lois conveys her disintegration, from prideful pregnancy to mental dissolution upon the death of her baby, with distressing credibility.  Elin Pritchard makes Ofglen, Offred’s walking companion, a figure of integrity and forbearance.

Kate Lindsey and Pumeza Matshika (c) Catherine Ashmore

British bass-baritone Robert Hayward’s Commander is an appropriately elusive figure, controlling and confident, yet strangely weak.  When he commands Offred to put on a slinky gold lame gown and stilettos and accompany him on an illicit visit to the brothel, Jezebel’s, his desire makes him ludicrous even as it renders him human.  The Scrabble game they play, though, which Offred both finds herself genuinely enjoying and uses to manipulate the Commander, is too brief in the opera to make its mark.  And, the sparseness of Woods’s designs deprive the opera of some of the novel’s symbolism.  Just as there is no flower garden for Serena Joy to tend, in the absence of a child to raise, the Commander’s office lacks the element that so startles Offred in Atwood’s novel: “Books and books and books, right out in plain view, no locks, no boxes. No wonder we can’t come in here. It’s an oasis of the forbidden.”

Robert Hayward and Kate Lindsey (c) Catherine Ashmore

The opera inevitably has to forgo the self-reflective analysis of Atwood’s narrative, in which almost every sentence demands probing interpretation, and one result of this is that the characterisation is simplified.  But, the male members of the cast make the most of their brief appearances.  Tenor John Findon makes Luke’s sudden realisation that masculine privilege would not enable him to keep his daughter and wife safe persuasively tense and vulnerable.  Frederick Ballantyne is engaging as Nick, Guardian to the household and chauffeur to the Commander, and Alan Oke oozes sleaze and slime as the lewd doctor who offers to impregnate Offred.  The Handmaids sing their unison choruses with focus and clarity, their chant-like quality further foregrounded by the score’s intertextual integration of hymn tunes and chorales, which enable Ruders to expose religious hypocrisies.

Margaret Atwood conceived the Republic of Gilead as a logical outcome of what she described as the ‘strict theocracy’ of the ‘fundamentalist government’ of the United States’ Puritan founding fathers, arguing that ‘Countries continue the way they began; they rearrange the symbols and structures but something remains of their origins’.  She noted, for example, that Ronald Reagan had a penchant for the early Puritans’ biblical maxims, referring to the US as ‘a light to all nations’.  But, in the 1980s it was common to equate Gilead with theocracies such as Iran; since then – as the novel has been absorbed into the school curriculum and made into a television series – it’s frequently suggested that contemporary political and social concerns – the rise of the Taliban, unfettered access to online pornography, misogynistic abuse on social media – has made the novel even more relevant today.  In the American Library Association’s list of Top 100 Most Banned and Challenged Books for the decade from 2010 to 2019, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale sits at number 29.

Alan Oke and Kate Lindsey (c) Catherine Ashmore

Offred looks back at ‘what was once’ and wishes to have ‘everything back, the way it was’ something which the opera’s alternations between the Time Now, which Bentley has described as ‘the sour present’, and the Time Before, ‘the sweet past’, might seem to endorse.  But, Atwood doesn’t suggest that the past was a utopia.  She depicts a world where women were free but had internalised the knowledge that they weren’t safe; where pornography was ubiquitous; where women were found ‘in ditches or forests or refrigerators in abandoned rented rooms, with their clothes on or off, sexually abused or not; at any rate killed’. 

The novel has three epigraphs.  The first, from Genesis, confirms the novel’s gender politics.  The second, from Swift, intimates that societies will countenance horrific principles that are counter to man’s very humanity.  Atwood has explained the third, ‘In the desert, there is no sign that says Thou shalt not eat stones’, as ‘stating a simple human truth: we don’t prohibit things that nobody would ever want to do anyway, since all prohibitions are founded upon a denial of our desires’.  The Handmaid’s Tale may show what happens when we prohibit natural human desires, but it also encourages us to ask whether the freedom to enjoy those desires is worth the price we may have to pay.  Ruders’s opera largely eschews this question.  But, Miskimmon’s production makes the questions that the opera does ask of us pressing and discomforting.

Claire Seymour

Offred – Kate Lindsey, Aunt Lydia – Emma Bell, The Commander – Robert Hayward, Serena Joy – Avery Amereau, Nick – Frederick Ballentine, Janine/Ofwarren – Rhian Lois, Moira – Pumeza Matshikiza, Ofglen – Elin Pritchard, Rita – Madeleine Shaw, The Doctor – Alan Oke, Offred’s Mother – Susan Bickley, Luke – John Findon, New Ofglen – Annabella Vesela Ellis, Professor Pieixoto – Camille Cottin; Director – Annilese Miskimmon, Conductor – Joana Carneiro, Designer – Annemarie Woods, Lighting designer – Paule Constable, Video designer – Akhila Krishnan, Sound designer – Yvonne Gilbert, Movement director – Imogen Knight.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Friday 8th April 2022.