Operatic Impotence: The Handmaid’s Tale

Preceded by enormous success during its run at the Copenhagen Royal Opera House in March 2000, Poul Ruders’s and Paul Bentley’s The Handmaid’s Tale dropped on the English National Opera like a bombshell. Based on Margaret Atwood’s awards-winning futuristic novel, we are confronted with a storyline that has Opera potential written all over it.

The year is 2005. By means of a toxic revolution, the United States of America have been toppled by a right-wing fundamentalist regime by the name of Gilead. Driven by religious doctrine, women have been denied of the most basic human rights. Most couples have been rendered infertile and those women able to reproduce, but only those with a sexual history of anything other than marital fidelity to one man, have been taken away to the ‘Red Centre’. Here they will be trained to become Handmaids, otherwise known as surrogate mothers. The struggle of Offred, a woman who attempts to flee across the border to Canada with her husband and child, is at the centre of this two hour and forty-five minute long epic.

It seems puzzling that a piece so highly acclaimed in one country should be received so indifferently by another. The production certainly goes off to a very promising start. Lined by action style film music, dramatic and currently very controversial newsreels demonstrate the collapse of the American republic. This could get interesting… The set clearly spells 1984 and we are kindly guided into the understanding that green costumes mean evil and red stands for the suppressed but essentially good side in the female species. This rather superficial reading of a characteristic would be excusable, were it not for the fact that the audience is meant to sympathise with the main character, Offred, sung by Stephanie Marshall, also dressed in red robes. Unfortunately there are so many women dressed in red robes on stage at any one time that we quickly loose sight of our heroine. Even when she takes off her red hood, she sports the same blonde short haircut as at least two other ladies in the choir.

Visually striking, the clinical and regimented set serves as a multitude of locations. Designer Peter McKintosh makes full use of the revolve on stage. However, where at first we are taken by the successful marriage of the lighting and the white furniture on wheels, the scene changes are far too quick and soon become nigh on soporific. It is when you begin to pay more attention to the correct positioning of a roll-on bed than to the libretto, that you know there is something lacking from this production.

Poul Ruders’s music score is intimidating at first, but soon blends into a bulk of a-tonal sequences, only occasionally giving the listener glimpses of melodies in samples of Amazing Grace. The heavy orchestration drowns out any hope of catching a part of the dialogue, which in turn has unfortunate effects on the understanding of the piece as a whole. Subtitles are sorely missed. We soon lose the plot in seemingly random images of crossed-over storylines and you’ll be lucky to catch any character’s name, let alone what they are doing on stage in the first place. Some potentially stunning musical opportunities are missed, especially in the note-sharing duet between Offred and her mother.

Margaret Atwood’s novel deals with themes of a futuristic nature, which, whilst they appear far-fetched at the moment, still make you ponder over what may become of the human race in years to come. To shape this work into a musical score is no mean feat. You would expect to feel stimulated and excited on leaving the London Coliseum, but all in all The Handmaid’s Tale does not hit the mark. Drowned by uniform costumes and complicated notes, the story leaves us feeling thoroughly drained and disappointed. Let us hope that The Handmaid’s Tale finds better reception at its next destination…

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