A searing operatic vision
Annilese Miskimmon’s incredibly powerful and stylish 2022 production (now under revival director James Hurley) of The Handmaid’s Tale (London Coliseum), based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, is yet another example of how the English National Opera take on difficult pieces of work and create something intense and challenging, yet enjoyable. The setting is that of a ‘tape recording’ of events that took place in the early 2000’s and is being shown to us as delegates of the 2135 International Historical Association, the Twelfth Symposium on the Republic of Gilead (formerly known as the USA). Readers of the novel are now nodding their head while the rest of you are scratching it. Because of the detail contained in the novel, and the phenomenal amount of research Atwood did into the world of female oppression and the role institutional religions played, designer Annemarie Woods is given ample opportunity to innovate and symbolise and she delivers an astonishing panoply of visuals that both enthral and captivate. The attention to detail in costumes and set is fantastic.
It is not an easy watch and sometimes graphic and disturbing, including scenes of murder, rape and execution but they are absolutely integral to the piece with not a sniff of gratuitousness. In both life and death, this is a world of ritual and although some of Poul Ruder’s score is an uncomfortable mix of atonal and lyrical beauty, it perfectly complements what we are experiencing. All of this is given extra power and impact with superb singing and character interpretations by a company that, whatever their misgivings, give it their all. Sometimes they seem to be part of cult ready to commit mass suicide, yet in the more gentle moments love and tenderness seep through the cracks of despair and systematic human rights denial. Frightening yet engrossing, where music is not the most important element. That may sound oxymoronic but this opera cuts through on many layers and the feeling at the end is one of exhilarating exhaustion for both us and them. Not art reflecting life but art predicting calamity.

There is a huge mirror ball hanging over the stage in Beth Steel’s new play Till the Stars Come Down (National Theatre). Not a design pun or some kind of deep symbolic prop but definitely emblematic of a production, directed at pace by Bijan Sheibani, which is a cracking piece of theatrical social realism that will have all those anti-Woke nutters thinking she has written it for them. Wrong! Her choice language – “hello sugar tits” – starts it off and it is spattered with passages of brilliantly observed characterisations by a banging cast. It all takes place at Sylvia and Marek’s wedding and the family are there in all their dysfunctional glory to welcome this newcomer into the madness. It goes downhill, undulates, meanders and there are moments of pathos that are quickly replaced by total hilarity as they gossip, play up and let loose. The closing moments are a scene of desolation and human fracture.
Steel’s writing reminds me of an Almodovar film; so real, so believable, so engaging, that any one of us could step into the scene and immediately connect and join the conversation. Yet those deep feelings fractured by equally deep division. Any of you currently watching the TV series on the the 1984 miners’ strike will understand just why these divisions (and hatred) remain. These are proud, devoted folk so that when the everyday hits them, as in messed up relationships, all the deep-seated bigotry and violence come to the fore. As the action unfolds the stage begins to resemble a jumble sale, full of stuff, the kind of stuff many of us accumulate over the years and wonder why the hell we have it. This is a picture of Britain that many fail to see or pretend doesn’t exist, most of the time treating these communities in abjectly patronising ways. Steel has uncovered and exposed it in a thrilling play. Laugh, cry and enjoy, this is a belter.
Finally, I need to learn to trust my instinct. The moment they get on the stage both Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are enthusiastically applauded. They are in town, an undoubted coup for the producers, to perform as husband and wife (as they are in real life) in Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite (Savoy Theatre). It looks the part, they look ready to play the part and then it begins. It’s a farce in more ways than I can describe. The play is dated, the acting is arch and the two of them seem to be having an enormous amount of fun. Their devoted fans were too. I was dumbstruck. To the extent that when Broderick almost fell on his backside it would have been my most memorable moment of the evening. John Benjamin Hickey’s production left me speechless. I missed out on press night but was determined to see the show. It’s a farcical spectacle and next time I will listen to that little voice in my head which says “just don’t”.

The Handmaid’s Tale – www.eno.org
Till the Stars Come Down – www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Plaza Suite – www.plazasuiteuk.com

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