A Twist in the Tale; Margaret Atwood Is Dreading the UK Premiere of the Opera of Her Novel the Handmaid's Tale - It Will Be a Shocking Theatrical Experience

By Maddocks, Fiona | The Evening Standard (London, England), April 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Twist in the Tale; Margaret Atwood Is Dreading the UK Premiere of the Opera of Her Novel the Handmaid's Tale - It Will Be a Shocking Theatrical Experience


Maddocks, Fiona, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: FIONA MADDOCKS

Margaret Atwood is dreading the UK premiere of the opera of her novel The Handmaid's Tale - it will be a shocking theatrical experience

THE question all readers of The Handmaid's Tale want to ask its Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, is: "How did you know?" Her 1986 best seller, set in a futuristic totalitarian regime called the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, has chilling prescience: Christian fundamentalists have seized control and imposed repressive laws, brainwashing women and depriving them of all the rights they have spent the past 1,000 years securing - education, property, freedom to give birth when and via whom they choose.

The book, already translated into 35 languages and a regular A-level and university set text, was turned into a film starring Natasha Richardson, with a script by Harold Pinter. Tonight an operatic version of this dark fable, by the Danish composer Poul Ruders and British librettist Paul Bentley, receives its first UK performance at the Coliseum, having been premiered to rapturous reviews in Copenhagen three years ago.

Atwood, in London for the occasion, dreads the prospect of sitting through the opera a second time, nerve-rackingly magnificent though she found it first time round. She enthusiastically supports the piece, both music and libretto. Yet she finds it shocking as a theatrical experience, not least, perhaps, because in the first few minutes you see faked newsreel of fundamentalist troops invading the White House and blowing up the Statue of Liberty.

To underline contemporary parallels, English National Opera's publicity material shows a woman, naked and heavily pregnant, prone on an unfurled Stars and Stripes, observed by a helmeted soldier.

"There's nothing new in The Handmaid's Tale," Atwood says. "One of my rules was that I couldn't put anything into the novel that human beings hadn't actually done. Stories exist within the world. They're not on some other planet called literature or the moon." Small, droll, benignly austere, Atwood hardly strikes you as a Cassandrine figure. Only her startling eyes, clear blue, slightly exotic and almond shaped, hint at some farseeing otherness.

She wrote the book in Berlin in 1984 - inspired, in part, by George Orwell's own study of dystopia set in that year, together with other literary models from Plato forward - little realising that within five years the Wall would have fallen and the Soviet regime collapsed. Then came the rise of the Taliban, the attack on the World Trade Center, and now Iraq.

"In fact I'd nearly started writing it some years earlier but the idea seemed too nutty. Who, in the early 1980s, was thinking such events could happen? And I'd put it all into a location where you wouldn't expect such things: Puritan North America, where my ancestors came from. One of my forebears was Mary Wesley, hanged for being a witch, except that when they cut her down she was still alive. Half-hanged Mary they called her. She's been a role model for me."

The critical and public response to The Handmaid's Tale differed dramatically in the three countries with which Atwood is most closely associated. "In England it sold quite well at first - around 3,000 copies.

Then it was short-listed for the Booker and sold a few more. The general critical response was 'what a jolly good yarn', and that was the end of the matter. You'd had Oliver Cromwell and religious war. You wouldn't expect it to happen again. In Canada, instead, people asked, 'Could it happen here?'

"Well, no, probably not, because of Canada's history and its disparate elements. Only in America did people ask, in utter seriousness, 'How long have we got?' They realised that they were closest of all to the real thing, especially compared to Europe, which is now so much more secular a place than the States. …

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