ENO Response: The Handmaid's Tale

12th May 2022 in News

ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.

The ENO presents a powerful new production of Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale. Based on Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, this outstandingly relevant work was last staged at the London Coliseum in 2003 when it received its first English language debut. By 2000, Danish composer Poul Ruders’ had turned Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale into an operatic depiction that keeps audiences on the edge of their seat.

This rarely staged opera is based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece of the same name, the basis of the hugely successful Hulu TV series starring Elisabeth Moss. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a totalitarian state in which women, stripped of their identities and rights, are subjected to the whims of a patriarchal republic. This thought-provoking work magnifies the issues of state control and the fragility of freedom.

Poul Ruders (1949)
Libretto by Paul Bentley (based on the novel by Margaret Atwood)
Conductor, Joana Carneiro
Director, Annilese Miskimmon

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A Review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Maxine Morse

You would need to be psychologically disturbed to categorise Poul Ruders’ 2000 opera of The Handmaid’s Tale as entertainment but this performance nonetheless leaves the viewer transfixed throughout.

Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, the opera depicts a futurist police state where women who have been living in sin, or who are in second marriages, are forced to act as surrogates for the childless leaders of the State of Gilead. Women are defined by their fertility and child bearing capabilities. Their emotions and actions are governed by a rule-bound theocracy.

The opera opens with Professor Pieixoto (Camille Cottin) explaining how the USA has been taken over by right-wing fundamentalists who have rolled back the progress and freedoms of women in early 21st century America. The discovery of a handmaid’s diary allows her story to be told. Camille Cotton seems lost – a slight, white-suited figure stranded on a podium…really, we want less chat so our dystopian nightmare can begin.

There is no sisterhood, no female fraternity, in Gilead. Aunt Lydia (Pumeza Matshikiza) leads an indoctrination centre where the handmaids are stripped of everything that makes them human. We witness mental breakdowns, flashbacks and thoughts of escaping until the women enter a docile state and graduate.

The role of the handmaid is to act as a surrogate. Offred (Kate Lindsey) vocals convey the alarm, sadness and distress of her plight. She is held down by the wife (Avery Amereau) while her husband, The Commander (Robert Hayward) attempts to impregnate her. All erotic touching is strictly forbidden. Any transgressions are punished by the women being sent to work in a brothel, or to hard labour in the Colonies.

Annemarie Woods has designed a barren set encased by NHS hospital grade, green-grey curtains onto which grainy, celluloid films are shown of Offred’s previously happy life with her husband and child. The props of clinical apparatus and educational flip-charts evoke the birth control clinics of the 1960s.

The music is scratchy and screechy with discordant percussion pieces punctuated by a few bars of Bach and Amazing Grace. The orchestra, conducted by Joana Carneiro, intentionally creates a background track to the action, rather than obviously supporting the voices.
Atwood is famed for having said that her novel contains nothing that hasn’t already happened in the world, or isn’t currently happening. Expect to be assaulted by historical and political allusions…the storming of the White House by Trump supporters, the rollback of women’s rights in Afghanistan, the separation of families by gun-toting soldiers which evoke the distressing, present day reality of the Ukrainan conflict.

Annilese Miskimmon (ENO Artistic Director) makes her debut as an opera director for the ENO with this performance.

Performing The Handmaid’s Tale echoes the reasons why Holocaust education is considered important; to never forget, so we never repeat the mistakes of history. Love, emotion and the things that make us human need to resist regulation by politics, education and organised religion.


Maya Qassim

The Handmaid’s Tale has a particular relevance at the ENO, with it’s UK premier hosted in the London Coliseum in 2003. Paul Bentley’s libretto is based on Magaret Atwood’s highly acclaimed dystopian novel, recently adapted by the BBC and Amazon Prime. The Opera has attracted a new audience with 29 percent of bookers taking advantage of the under 35 scheme and 40 percent never having watched a performance before.

The ENO’s interpretation was driven by the female perspective, relevant in an often male-dominated industry. In an interview, Annilese Miskimmon (Artistic director and The Handmaid’s Tale director) commented: “I think Opera as an art form over the last centuries has neglected the power of the female experience and how dramatic and important that is for audiences to share and experience.” French Actress Camille Cottin made her highly anticipated West-end debut as Professor Piexoto in a crisp white-suit. Her opening metatheatrical monologue created a duality for the audience in being both complicit and repelled by the violent narrative. Conductor Joana Carnerio, current ENO Mackerras fellow, showed high potential as an upcoming conductor in her elevation of the drama in the score. ‘Offred’ Kate Lindsey was both defiant and naïve in her performance which was highly memorable, marking potential for exceptional success in her operatic career.

Danish composer Poul Ruder’s striking score itself is innovating. Each piece is anchored by dissonance with few moments of release from the vice of ‘The Eye’ using consonant intervals. The sustained melodic tension indoctrinates the audience over the course of the opera, eventually making the listeners ear tranquilized to the evocative and jarring soundscape. This compositional technique is effective in putting the audience through the same indoctrination as those suffering in Gilead. Ruder’s throbbing unpredictable chords pulsate at the heart of the score adding to the sense of the uncanny, a clear influence from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The only temporary sense of relief in the score is during a character’s death, in which Ruder gives a glimpse of perfect harmony. The score’s artificial colour is reflected in Annemarie Wood’s design and lighting designer Paule Constable’s purposeful fluorescence.

The Handmaid’s Tale was an extremely thought-provoking performance. It is exciting to see what will be done in the next season!


Tacita Quinn

Before curtains even rose, ENO made history with its production of The Handmaid’s Tale. It is the first all-female creative team at the London Coliseum and the first directed by Annilese Miskimmon since becoming ENO’s artistic director. With her bold staging of composer Poul Ruders’ operatic adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s quintessential feminist novel, expectations were inordinately high, and the opera only just missed the mark.

Set in the year 2195, clinical blue curtains enclosed the ENO stage in preparation for a symposium delivered by Professor Pieixoto, played by Killing Eve’s Camille Cottin. Poised at the podium, she begins to explain the Republic of Gilead’s foundation, its fascist history, and how the story of a handmaid survived on a handful of rerecorded cassette tapes. Once Pieixoto pressed play, the audience heard the first haunting musical note from Kate Lindsey, singing Offred, our handmaid.

Atwood’s story of Offred being reduced to a child-bearing vessel was set against the relics of Gilead’s blood soaked past, as if within the historical imagination of the audience. Designer Anne-Marie Woods’ minimal set worked well with the fast-paced plot-driven narrative, and posed Offred’s story as a tangible, real history, not far enough away from our own. Though filled with constant exposition and explanation, the second act felt consistently gripping.

To say Lindsey’s voice is transcendent would be an understatement. The ethereal quality of her phrasing wrapped around her harrowing performance. Rarely off stage, she made the audience feel every spite Offred held against the state of Gilead. One of Offred’s oppressors, the fearsome Aunt Lydia, sung by Emma Bell, had the most physically demanding lines. It was impressive that Paul Bentley’s poignant libretto was not entirely lost at such a high register. Conversely, mezzo Avery Amereau as Serena Joy, was both unwavering when in command, and pitiful when commanded. Supported by a tight chorus and a list of cast members too many to name, the strength of the opera lies chiefly on the outstanding performances.

Ruders’ score is not an easy ride. Filled with dissonance, impossibly high phrases and the irksome repetition of Amazing Grace, it was difficult to feel the intensity of the production when the melody sounded like a glockenspiel in a washing machine. While the cacophony of the score is obviously the point, it was in the smaller moments that the tension was allowed to crescendo. Conducted on a knife’s edge by Joana Carneiro, it was the apprehensive seconds shared by Offred and the defiant handmaid Ofglen (Elin Pritchard), and the ghostly passage between past and present Offred, that halted breaths.

First performed in Copenhagen in 2000, then revived with limited success at ENO in 2003, Ruders’ opera was composed at a time when feminism was out of fashion. With the rise of Trump and Putin, patriarchy has made its way back into the modern vocabulary. Now is undeniably the time for the opera to be reimagined. However, this is one opera that the ENO shouldn’t tokenistically roll-out. This should just be the beginning.


Grace Creaton-Barber

It is true that the dystopian genre, by its nature, is entirely speculative but that does not make Margaret Atwood’s societal and political observations in the 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale any less bone-chilling. First performed at the London Coliseum in 2003, Poul Ruders’ opera of the same name is given a new lease of life by director Annilese Miskimmon.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a future totalitarian regime named after the biblical Gilead. In the wake of environmental catastrophe, society has suffered a decline in birth rates and fertility. As a result, the government turns to distorting religious scriptures – ‘give me children, or else I die’ (Genesis 30:1) – to cultivate a world that forces women into the role of the handmaid. Through the means of audio tapes discovered after the fall of Gilead, the audience is introduced to one such handmaid: Offred. Her story is fragmented and crucially unfinished, but it is enough for us to piece together the dystopian atrocities.

Between depictions of suicide, murder, references to rape and deep-rooted oppression, this is not an opera for the faint-hearted. The potency of Atwood’s narrative is elevated with great effect by the music. Laced with the ominous beating of drums, tolling of bells and mediaeval chanting, Joana Carneiro conducts a purposeful sound of dissonance. At times, the crispness of enunciation is lost to the intensity of the accompaniment, particularly during Emma Bell’s challenging soprano as Aunt Lydia, but this does not dampen the overall impact.

As seems fitting for an all-female production team, the male singers in this opera fill the periphery roles. This is in keeping with Atwood’s assertion that The Handmaid’s Tale is not about the removal of the female voice, but rather its strength. Of course, Offred (Kate Lindsey) dominates the evening with very little time off stage. Lindsey is absolutely sensational, giving one of the most convincing performances I have seen on the ENO stage to-date. Her voice is enchantingly unique, often hauntingly so, fading out notes in a style that merges with the resonating strings from the orchestra. Other strong performances come from Avery Amereau as Serena Joy and Elin Pritchard as Ofglen. This production also features a successful stunt casting with Camille Cottin delivering a perfectly poised Professor Pieixoto.

The staging is, on the whole, stripped back and clinical – in keeping with the sanitised environment Offred describes in the book. The one exception to this is the temple-like wall – a place that serves the same warnings to traitors that London Bridge once did. Accompanied by the well-considered costume and set designs of Annemarie Woods, Gilead is brilliantly realised, with the colour-coded clothing helping illustrate its hierarchies. This is a challenging narrative to communicate and the decision to include video projection tackles this brilliantly. These video flashbacks are reflective of our time today and help us make what sense we can of Gilead’s origin.

Terrifying and at times hard to watch, this is truly an excellent production.


Grace Richardson

The Handmaid’s Tale makes its return to The Coliseum almost twenty years after its English language debut, this time having to contend with the immensely popular TV adaptation. In a world where the American Capitol was stormed last year and US states are passing new restrictive abortion laws, it remains a timely and pertinent story to tell.

A female-led creative team and production staff take on Ruders’s brutal opera, with ENO Artistic Director Annilese Miskimmon at the helm making her ENO directorial debut, set and costumes designed by Annemarie Woods and Joana Carneiro conducting.

The narrative is framed within a historical lecture: the protagonist Offred’s story comes to life through cassette-tape recordings that have been recently discovered. Call My Agent’s Camille Cottin plays Professor Pieixoto, who introduces the dystopian theocracy, Gilead, before setting the tapes playing. The audience is then thrust into this world of catastrophic birth rates and chemical waste, where we meet Offred at an indoctrination centre for the Handmaids (women treated as rent-a-wombs).

Kate Lindsey makes her ENO debut as Offred, dazzling the audience with a crystal clear, beautifully controlled voice matched by a poignant performance. Emma Bell’s Aunt Lydia stood out with vocal acrobatics that had a deeply haunting effect (perhaps it is best that there are only four performances for the sake of Bell’s voice). Lindsey’s Offred and Elin Pritchard’s Ofglen produced touching moments as their characters realised they were kindred spirits. Alan Oke’s Doctor was also notable among a strong supporting cast.

Whilst retaining the instantly recognisable red dress and white bonnet, the costumes were somewhat updated with red rain macs (the ENO seems to have quite the penchant for macs: we’ve already seen green ones on the Valkyries and the Cunning Little Vixen Timekeepers in black versions this season.) The minimal, sterile set made up of auditorium-come-hospital curtains allowed for multiple rapid scene changes.

Miskimmon skillfully handled the intricate plot, taking time to introduce the viewer to the world, but the first act did feel like it reached its climax too early and then had to sustain a very high energy. The second act had more shape and moments of almost calm – though the events taking place were even more harrowing.

Flashbacks to Offred’s life before Gilead sometimes took the form of black and white projections (designed by Akhila Krishnan) and other times onstage intrusions that succinctly blurred the lines of memory and reality. Most successful was the duet between past and present Offred: a very well timed duet between Lindsey and her prior recorded self with each version singing alternating syllables.

The music is unrelenting, the themes are challenging: it is not one to bring the family along to. It is, however, very engaging. In book-ending the ENO season with Satyagraha and The Handmaid’s Tale, Miskimmon makes clear an intention to centre contemporary opera in the repertoire, which is exciting.


Carol J Jones

ENO The Handmaid’s Tale – Disturbing for all the right reasons

Since its publication in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has only become more relevant. The attack on the US Capitol, an abortion ban in Texas and the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan means for some, Atwood’s vision of a dystopian future is no longer fiction. English National Opera’s new production of Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale could not be more well-timed, in this tale of violence, oppression and control.

In her company directorial debut, ENO artistic director Annilese Miskimmon transports us to a symposium in the year 2195 where red raincoats, replacing the iconic handmaids’ cloaks, hover in ghostly formation. Professor Pieixoto, played by the incomparable Ca-mille Cottin, delivers an address on the Republic of Gilead, a regime where women, stripped of their rights, are forced to produce children before playing the audiotapes of one handmaid’s experience in Gilead. Miskimmon and intimacy co-ordinator Imogen Knight carefully balance showing us enough violence to experience the horror of Gilead without being gratuitous. Annemarie Woods’ minimalist set mainly features large cur-tains, reminiscent of a school hall, and leaves much of the set to the audience’s imagina-tion. It’s visually underwhelming however, Ruders’ thundering score quickly fills the void.

Kate Lindsey leads the cast as Offred, her crystal voice cutting through the heavy orches-tration. Her audience asides show us the few glimpses of humanity in the opera, as she is torn between escaping and surviving. Emma Bell’s technical prowess is on full display as the tyrannical Aunt Lydia, though the repeated skyrocketing leaps nearly undermine Aunt Lydia’s terror. With fourteen named characters, most are, disappointingly, never fully realised. Avery Amereau’s rich contralto shines as Serena Joy but we never get a chance to understand her motivation. Pumeza Matshikiza’s fiery Moira is memorable for its spirit but is all too brief. Rhian Lois and Elin Pritchard are notable as Janine and Oflgen, and Susan Bickley as Offred’s Mother appears in a devastating short ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment.

Ruders’ score is unrelenting, filled with crashing chords and heavy metallic percussion, which conductor Joana Carneiro masterfully manages. The ENO orchestra and chorus are on form here, attacking the music with fearsome ferocity.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a perfect opera. Librettist Paul Bentley ploughs through the many plot points with such speed – note the fastest scrabble game ever played – that one wonders whether an editor could have helped. But what this opera does do brilliantly is capture the emotional toll being in an authoritarian system takes. It’s an ambitious, deeply unsettling opera but one that needs to be told. Whether we like it or not, The Handmaid’s Tale is an opera for our time. One only hopes Miskimmon’s ambitious programming continues.


Alexander Cohen

The Handmaid’s Tale Review

As the audience enter the London Coliseum, the handmaids’ red jackets, symbols of their oppression, dangle on stage inhabited as if being worn by invisible figures. It is both a fitting and haunting image that aptly summarises the concrete vision of artistic director of the ENO Annilese Miskimmon’s directorial debut: to shine a light on unheard voices.

The Handmaid’s Tale traces the inner life of a women living under the dystopian theocracy of Gilead where fertile women are forced to be handmaids who are ceremonially raped in a quasi-biblical ceremony. With the Amazon TV series adaption of the original novel, and Atwood’s sequel releasing in 2019, The Handmaid’s Tale has as ingrained itself within popular culture. The now iconic red cloaks are even frequently donned at women’s’ rights protests across the globe. But what can a new production of the opera adaption add to the conversation?

Unlike the TV series, where every nook and cranny of Gilead is brought eerily to life, here the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is left to the audiences’ imagination with a simplistic set; a green clinical coloured curtain borders the stage with a pink curtain descending to mark the house where Offred is assigned to be used as a handmaid. Instead, the production focuses on Offred’s inner turmoil which fully inhabits the space.
Poul Ruder’s raw minimalist score maps each of Offred’s emotional triumphs and obstacles. Conductor Joana Carneiro draws the grounded and muddy elements out of the music; trumpets spatter, spit, and growl at Offred as if they are the oppressive regime oppressing her. There is no hope of relief from the sweet hum of a string instrument other than the hymn Amazing Grace that is here demonically inverted, playing over each ritualistic rape scene.

Kate Lindsey’s Offred’s voice is stern but agile. Her intense longing for freedom forges a clear sense of hope and she deftly navigates Paul Bentley’s winding Libretto. Trying to cram so much narrative background into a just over two-hour opera means that some of the story is be rushed. Those who are not familiar with the novel might become lost in the dense world. But creative directorial decisions make the story easily digestible; memories of Offred’s real family from the “time before” Gilead are particularly haunting, projected onto stage with a grainy black and white film.

Avery Amereau is a fiery Serena Joy, the wife of Offred’s commander who ceremoniously rapes Offred. For such a cruel character, Amereau weaves a good amount of sympathy into her portrayal, her jealously sparked from deep-seated insecurity that Amereau slowly unravels.

The opera is probably not a must see for fans of Atwood’s dystopia. But in the context of the opera world, it is essential. Given that many canonical works in the repertoire are mired by a legacy of misogyny, The Handmaid’s Tale stands out as a bold, unabashedly feminist opera that puts a woman centre stage to explore female issues rarely explored in opera.


Alexander Grant-Said

Before it was a school set text or acclaimed Hulu series, it was a modernist opera. Reviews for the UK premiere of Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale were fairly underwhelming nineteen years ago. ENO’s second attempt by Annilese Miskimmon fares better. The artistic director makes her directorial debut for the company with a striking update, suffused with chilling poignancy given real world events. And though the all-female creative team rises to the challenges posed by Ruders’s work, this is not the entry point for curious first timers Miskimmon clearly hopes.

Annemarie Woods’s minimalist sets allow us to effortlessly flit between the past and present, exterior and interior of Margaret Atwood’s story with little more than pastel curtains and the odd midcentury armchair. Two public hangings, a mob execution and Offred’s ritualised rapes deliberately play out in front of the drapery rather than behind it – Miskimmon tastefully depicts the violence in stylised but unflinching detail.

Paule Constable’s elegant lighting lends a Stepford sheen to the brutality. And Imogen Knight’s choreography remains pin-sharp as she takes a battalion of Handmaidens from their indoctrination camp to the homes of fascist higher-ups as unwilling birthing vessels. The movement director also gives a masterclass on how to use a gurney a dozen different ways.

Matching the tightly focused visuals is an exceptional cast, with the female leads (quite rightly) taking centerstage over competent male performers. As Offred, Kate Lindsey gives a tour-deforce performance, barely leaving the stage but always captivating, even in huddled silence. The mezzo’s duet lamenting her stolen daughter with her own past self – in the form of a flickering, prerecorded video projection – is the most effecting exchange of the night; one that the Double of previous productions, a second soprano in the role, surely couldn’t have matched for haunting quality. Emma Bell shoots up to stratospheric vocal heights as prison camp matron Aunt Lydia. Surtitles are often needed to translate her words all the way up there. And Avery Amereau provides rich support as Serena Joy.

All this, however, can’t quite shake Paul Bentley’s stifling libretto. A faithful retelling of the novel is squeezed into under three hours, meaning pacing drags in see first half – though things pick up once Offred arrives at The Commander’s house after the interval. And flashbacks to the Time Before have Offred’s family inexplicably talking in distracting sitcom accents. Then there is the score. Alluring moments, such as a deconstructed “Amazing Grace,” are brief interludes in a discordant soup of crashing brass and hysterical strings; admirably navigated by Joana Carneiro in the pit. But the Danish composer means his music to be as uncomfortable as his subject and it often is.

Despite the now mainstream title – white bonneted cosplayers were visible in the audience on opening night – this oppressive Handmaid’s Tale will not be for everyone. Even if Miskimmon, with her rallying cry of “opera for everyone,” makes the parts under her control impressive.