Many years ago I read Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale”. No matter what Atwood calls it, I remember it being a very good work of science fiction (Atwood says it’s speculative fiction, her dismissal of science fiction as just “monsters and space ships” is ignorant and wrong). That was, however, many years ago. While I remember the broad outline of the plot and the themes explored, I don’t remember much of the detail.
Last night I went to see the English National Opera’s version. From what I remember it stuck to the plot fairly well but I can’t tell what details were left out – not that it matters, the necessarily stripped down libretto covers everything that needs covering. The book ends with the revelation that it has been pieced together from cassette tapes left by a Handmaid and that the dystopian Republic of Gilead is now just an object of historical study. This is extended in the opera with an expository prelude from a professor of history which is, I think, necessary so that those unfamiliar with the book could understand what is going on. Unfortunately this isn’t just left as a prelude, it frames the entire production, with more exposition by the professor which comes right after the highly emotionally charged and ambiguous ending of the second act. That epilogue is frankly a couple of minutes of let-down.
Kate Lindsey (as Offred) does a very good job in what must be an extremely demanding role, on stage practically full-time, and the supporting cast and the technical departments all do exactly what is needed and no more. Poul Ruders’s score complements the libretto perfectly, with some unusual instrumentation but without disappearing up its arse into atonality like some other modern composers do. My only quibble is that The Wall – practically the only major piece of scenery, and it appears briefly several times – was, in the book, a place where enemies of the state were hanged and left to rot. It is turned into a sentimental wall of remembrance. Perhaps it was thought that the audience would react poorly to a line of hanging corpses, but that seems an odd decision to make in a production were we see not just hanged corpses but the very act of execution by hanging, execution by beating, and repeated rapes.
Those two very minor issues aside, it was a stunning production. As I write this there are three more performances left in its short run, and at least some cheap tickets available if you don’t mind being up in the gods.