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Last Updated:  Friday, 4 April, 2003, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
Handmaid strikes a chord
by Matthew Slater
BBC News Online

The birthing scene (Mary Nelson as Janine/Ofwarren)
Women are divided into three classes

An acclaimed Danish production of The Handmaid's Tale opens at the embattled English National Opera.

Timely is the word that springs to mind after watching the UK premiere of Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale.

First, there is the opera's subject matter.

Adapted from Margaret Atwood's novel about a brutal theocracy called Gilead that emerges from the wreckage of post-holocaust America, The Handmaid's Tale could not be more topical.

In Gilead the regime has divided women into three classes, wives, servants and handmaids, with the latter serving as walking wombs for the more privileged, but also subservient, wives.

Above all women are men, with the religious elite, called the Commanders of God, ruling the roost.

Stephanie Marshall as Offred
The performances are passionate
Atwood's book, published in 1985, was written in response to the anti-feminist backlash she sensed brewing in the USA and as a warning against the tide of right-wing religious fundamentalism.

That tide has grown - and some would argue that the Christian right is now the real power behind President George W. Bush's throne - and Atwood's nightmarish vision of militant misogyny is starting to look less far-fetched by the day.

But the opera is also timely in a far more mundane sense - the English National Opera needs a hit.

After a year of cutbacks and falling attendances, the ENO is counting on Ruders' interpretation of Atwood's depressing tale to bring back the feel-good factor to its finances.

Given the enormous success of the opera in Ruders' native Denmark since its world premiere in March 2000, the chances of a lucrative transfer to the English market are excellent.

The problems of translating a long novel into an effective musical drama are expertly dealt with by Paul Bentley's faithful libretto and Phyllida Lloyd's inventive direction.

Bentley pulls off the difficult task of telling a complex story in a straightforward way.

Ruders' cinematic style plays its part - bursts of dissonance clash with the melodic sweep of the narrative to underscore moments of high drama - and the set design, costumes and lighting are first rate.

The performances are equally impressive.

The lead role is split into two parts - Offred as the eponymous Handmaid, and Offred as she was before Gilead's creation - and both are sung and acted with a passion that suggests pain and hope.

Atwood's base material provides plenty to build on - treachery, murder, rape, executions and sex (it is a night at the ENO, after all).

But it is to the credit of Ruders, Bentley and Lloyd that they saw the operatic potential in the novel and succeeded in making it work.

The Handmaid's Tale is far from perfect - the music lacks variety, the first half is too long and the subject matter can weigh you down - but for its hard-hitting vitality it deserves to be the success ENO is praying for.

The Handmaid's Tale at the English National Opera is performed on 3, 5, 9, 11, 14 and 25 April.

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