Exploring Gilead is ‘more important than ever’: The Handmaid’s Tale comes to the English National Opera

8 April 2022, 23:28

English National Opera's production of Poul Ruders’ “The Handmaid's Tale” directed by Annilese Miskimmon and conducted by Joana Carneiro at The London Coliseum
English National Opera's production of Poul Ruders’ “The Handmaid's Tale” directed by Annilese Miskimmon and conducted by Joana Carneiro at The London Coliseum. Picture: Getty

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

“It feels more important than ever to be exploring Gilead and talking about what the story exposes in our society right now.”

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The Handmaid’s Tale opened at the English National Opera this evening for its first return to the London Coliseum stage since 2003.

The opera – based on Margaret Atwood’s futuristic dystopian 1985 novel of the same name – was written by Danish composer Poul Ruders in 2000, with libretto by Paul Bentley.

With a delayed 2022 opening night due to Covid-19, The Handmaid’s Tale has a limited four-performance run at the English National Opera until 14 April.

The production is very close to the book, detailing the day-to-day realities of the life of Offred, a fertile woman forced to reproduce in the dystopian state of Gilead (formerly America).

Directed by Annilese Miskimmon, and conducted by Joana Carneiro, the show is produced by an all-female creative team, who successfully bring to life Atwood’s dystopic future, with all it’s restrictions and suppressions.

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Acclaimed American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey stars as Offred, and her first exposure to the story of The Handmaid’s Tale, was the opera.

“I hadn’t read the book yet,” Lindsey told Classic FM. “And although my husband was raving about the TV series a few years ago, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it because I was still in a bit of a fragile place caring for a little baby.

“Then a couple years later, the ENO offered me the role, and I started to explore the story more deeply.

“However, the opera score itself was the gateway to the story of The Handmaid’s Tale for me. I haven’t seen the TV show. I consciously made that decision after accepting the role because I didn’t want to get my mind stuck into mental pictures from the screen and unconsciously be pulled towards those ideas.

“I wanted to be able to read the book and imagine the world directly from the source material. I must say that the opera is extremely loyal to the novel.

“Anyone that knows the book will be able to easily identify this story on the opera stage.”

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“The Handmaid's Tale” – Kate Lindsey as Offred (right)
“The Handmaid's Tale” – Kate Lindsey as Offred (right). Picture: Getty

With an easily identifiable story thanks to Atwood’s internationally acclaimed book, and the multi-award winning 2016 Hulu series, ENO has seen a strong response to their modern programming.

29 percent of bookers for The Handmaid’s Tale have done so through the ENO’s Under 35s or Under 21s ticket scheme, while 40 percent of the overall bookers are first-timers.

Lindsey also predicted that staging the opera, The Handmaid’s Tale would perhaps draw a new audience to the genre.

“I know there are many young people who have been introduced to the story via the TV show, so people who know the book and/or the show may be a bit curious to see what the opera version might look like,” she told Classic FM.

“Plus, the ENO is the perfect place to come if you’ve never been to an opera because one of the company’s biggest objectives is to make the opera experience welcoming to everyone, no matter your experience or knowledge of the artform itself.”

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Not only will this opera be a new experience for those exploring the genre for the first time, but playing the character of Offred has been a unique journey for Lindsey too.

“Firstly, [Offred]’s a woman!” Lindsey told Classic FM. “I’ve made a large part of my career playing trouser roles and being the young dude on stage, so it’s nice to play a woman and not have be stuck in a corset in order to do it!

“In all seriousness, Offred has been a challenging role. Not only is it just physically and emotionally intense, but I’m having to really think about how to play a woman from whose eyes the whole story is expressed but who has no true freewill.

“She observes, she listens, she’s trying to gain the littlest tidbits of information about the secretive and controlled world around her. She is subservient. Things are done to her, and people talk at her, but she is without much choice or voice herself.

“Essentially, a huge part of this story is about her finding the courage to take a leap of faith into the unknown.”

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Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, but Lindsey argues that bringing Gilead to the stage is “possibly even more pertinent to our world now” than when the story was written.

Lindsey told Classic FM: “It’s eerie how Margaret Atwood pinpointed elements to society and history back in 1985, and we are living and effectively ‘re-living’ elements of these issues 37 years later.

“The story feels incredibly immediate as I look around and see what we’re facing collectively in the world today.

“To me, it feels more important than ever to be exploring Gilead and talking about what the story exposes in our society right now.”

The Handmaid’s Tale opened on Friday 8 April for 4 performances: April 8, 12, 14 at 19.30, and April 10 at 15.00.

The suggested age guidance for The Handmaid’s Tale is 15+. This production contains scenes of sexual violence and strong language.