Published On: Sun, Feb 4th, 2024
Entertainment | 2,929 views

English National Opera’s The Handmaid’s Tale review: Grim but powerfully performed | Theatre | Entertainment

When I first saw this adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s highly acclaimed novel two years ago, I could admire the appropriate clunkiness of Danish composer Poul Ruders’ music and the excellence of the singing, but I did not enjoy it.

This time, I liked it far more, partly because I knew what I was letting myself in for, but mainly because of the superb performance by American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey – who sang and acted even better than last time – aided by the meticulous and sensitive handling of the music by Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro.

The tale is set in the not-too-distant future in the Republic of Gilead, an authoritarian state that has replaced the USA after a nuclear catastrophe. The state is run by a hypocritical, misogynistic, pseudo-religious fundamentalists, dedicated to preserving and repopulating their country in pursuit of which women are subjugated to the role of baby-bearers.

Divorce, abortion and even literacy are forbidden to women, with harsh punishments to any who disobey. By comparison, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and mere amateurs at authoritarianism and brutality.

The opera begins with a spoken address given by a professor, convincingly played by the actress Juliet Stevenson, explaining the supposedly noble principles behind Gilead, which acts as a good introduction to the rest of it, which tells of the struggles of Offred, played by Kate Lindsey, while exposing the self-righteous deviousness of the male elite.

Ruders’ music is, I suppose, appropriate to the dystopian theme of the opera. Just as the story is about an imagined future society of injustice and misery, the music is atonal and often difficult to listen to and even more difficult to sing. The shrieky clunkiness of the music matches the oppressiveness and unhappiness of the state, but to his credit, Ruders uses a range of orchestral sounds to portray the emotions exhibited on stage.

Having, at almost the last minute, overcome a threatened strike by the Musician’s Union in the wake of proposed cuts made to the ENO budget by the Arts Council, this production may be seen as a significant and well-timed triumph: a victory for the individuality and creativity of the ENO against a blinkered and over-authoritarian state apparatus.

Just as we are left at the end of the Handmaid’s Tale not knowing what happened to Offred after her escape attempt from Gilead, we still do not quite know what will happen to the ENO, but the power of this production, which was only confirmed to go ahead with a few days’ notice, is an encouraging demonstration of their determination and abilities.

Source link