While novels have provided rich source material for plays (Nicholas Nickleby, Midnight's Children) and musicals (Les Misérables, Ragtime), the modern world of opera has turned to them less often. But on receiving the Royal Danish Opera Company's first commission for a new work in 34 years, Poul Ruders insisted that his opera had to be The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's story of a future America ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship. Three years after its premiere, and with its themes made eerily prescient by the Iraq conflict, the production arrived at the London Coliseum.
Reconvening in London were the original creative team of director Phyllida Lloyd, designer Peter McKintosh, and lighting designer Simon Mills. McKintosh's set — familiar to many who hadn't seen the Danish production through its appearance in the recent Society of British Theatre Designers' 2D-3D exhibition and accompanying book — creates a large, antiseptic space with white panelled walls, side doors, and overhead trusses. Within this sits a revolve, set into which is a grid of white neon tubes allowing four separate “rooms” to be delineated at floor level; white furniture is set and cleared from here manually by costumed stagehands. Upstage, the space at the bottom of the rear white wall holds dark Perspex™ panels which can be tracked off, if required. Alternatively, this wall can be flown out to reveal a dramatic blood-red brick wall embossed with the “eye” logo of the Republic of Gilead. At the very end of the show this, too, is dramatically punctured.
While the set is largely white, McKintosh's costumes use clear color-coding: the handmaids — women posted to selected childless couples to be impregnated by the husband in the presence of his wife — wear identical red robes. The Aunts — the women who run the indoctrination centers — wear identical green robes.
Simon Mills' lighting has to react to these colors, but the high walls and often-closed side doors limit his choice of angles. His design therefore includes two-color (Lee 161 slate blue and L323 jade) Robert Juliat 4' fluorescents built into the downstage edge of each doorframe, allowing dramatic color washes to be thrown onto the chorus and set using little equipment from no throw; it is these big washes of shadowless color, plus a deep blue (Rosco 383 sapphire blue) toplight from 5kW fresnels, which define the show's look. Characters are then picked out with two front Kupo followspots and two 1.2kW HMI Pani side spots.
For the more tightly controlled scenes, mainly those of Offred, the handmaid central to the story, Mills needed tightly-focusable specials. Unlike Denmark, the Coliseum has no moving lights in its standard rig — but the creative team was attached to the cold grey offered by these units' discharge lamps. Mills, Nick Moran, the show's lighting supervisor, and Kevin Sleep, English National Opera's head of lighting, therefore approached The Moving Light Company which has supplied 11 High End Systems Studio Color® Ms, chosen for their beam quality and low noise. The lights, controlled from the theatre's Strand 500-Series console, are used as refocusable specials, never moving live until the very final moment of the show when Offred is led to her fate and her exit is tracked by a center-stage Studio Color.
Mills' lighting also has to accomplish two big visual shifts. The first uses a fiber-optic point in the center of each wall panel (fed by Martin Robocolor Pro 400s) plus deep reds and pinks from the Studio Colors to create a private brothel. The second is for the moments when the show flashes back to the time before Gilead; here Mills sneaks the side doors open and sends a strip of sharp, warmed (L764 sun colour straw) tungsten crosslight across the stage from Svoboda battens. This together with more naturalistic costumes is enough to set the time period for an audience already primed through a prologue video sequence that documents the collapse of the American government. That sequence is projected onto a front gauze; at other points in the show live and pre-recorded video giving close-ups to different characters is projected onto the back wall, both sets of projections using the same Sanyo XP46 projector from Show Presentation Services sealed in a soundproof box at the rear of the stalls seating; Philip Ashley handled the video work.
The result is an adjunct to the novel, the scope of opera adding to the big story while losing some of the inner detail. The creative team's work — and that of the strong cast — supports that to navigate the audience successfully through the evening.