Margaret Atwood’s, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is just as pertinent now as it was on publication in 1985. If anything, it has ripened as real events increase its relevance. Male sperm count in the West is declining, Trump rages through the Whitehouse and debating Nazism is somehow back in the mainstream. It is within this landscape that the recent TV adaptation of Atwood’s novel caused such a stir with its uniquely sinister tone.
Therefore ‘Ripe’, Divergent Theatre’s retelling of the tale at this year’s Fringe, was in a great place in terms of cultural and political significance. Although only loosely based on Atwood’s original story, I was very excited to see what this new company had done with their modern-day adaptation.
From the outset the play fails to capture the unsettling mood of the original story. The two patients Misha (Kate Gwynn) and Rachel (Rashida Amanda) chat merrily and giggle about their prospects. They are the June and Moira of this world and, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know that they would not giggle about their future of monthly rape, physical punishments and their confinement within an extreme patriarchy. In this version their sexual excitement over the doctor and their delight in pleasing a childless couple belittle their brutal situation and removes most of the elements of gender inequality that Atwood’s book prioritise.
In this version the women are refugees from a vague war-torn district. A piece of verse read by Amanda about her past was the most moving moment of the play as we glimpsed into her traumatic past. Having escaped war, they now have to give birth to an official’s child to gain citizenship. Sadly, this grim premise somehow achieved a comic and not disturbing tone.
In Atwood’s story the monthly ‘ceremonies’ are some of the most troubling pages in modern literature. In this version however, the sperm insemination is a hilarious physical sequence, with crass shadows against a hospital screen and all set to the tune of silly elevator music. There was even romantic suggestions between Misha and her doctor. While this made for an entertaining watch, it did not inspire sympathy in the protagonist, meaning when Gwynn gives her all in the climatic final birth scene, her graphic screams fall flat.
The staging was also problematic, with a cramped set barely allowing enough room for the frequent split stage. Scene changes were rarely smooth, and although the actors all had great onstage chemistry, some of the line delivery was forced. Jason Plessas and Victoria Grace were funny in their roles as the rich dignitaries, but this was because they were the only ones to embrace the (hopefully accidental) comedy of the play.
So much could have been done with this reimagining of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Divergent Theatre attempted a lot with their play: romance, friendship, refugees, childbirth, class inequalities, gender inequalities. Perhaps if they had chosen one clear theme with a smaller cast then their piece would have had more impact. Sadly ‘Ripe’ feels confused and its comedy comes at the cost of all meaning and relevance to the original story.