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In Conversation with Margaret Atwood: Lyttelton Theatre

September 11, 2019

10th September 2019.

Sometimes you just get lucky, this was one of those times. Drawing number 1 position in the queue when tickets went on sale, I landed one of the £25 tickets on row D. Given that the price included a copy of Atwood’s new book “The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments” with a cover price of £20, that had to be a deal, right?

On the night, organisation was superb. Before the main event, a desk staffed by cheerful folk from Waterstones were checking tickets and dispensing copies of the book. Beside them, another team from charity “Equality Now” (www.equalitynow.org) handed out free programmes, bookmarks and “Misogeny Bores Me” stickers.

Inside, on the “Hansard” set, the stalls bristled with video cameras waiting to beam proceedings to over 1500 cinemas “live” and tens of thousands more later on as global time-zones caught up.

Prompt at 7.30pm, Samira Ahmed welcomed us, and suggested turning off phones as otherwise “The Eyes” would get you… sadly, this was ignored by several folk, and black vans could be seen pulling away from Upper Ground later on…

A brief autocue introduction from Ms Ahmed welcomed the cinema audience, a little sound extract from the original “The Handmaid’s Tale” and video extract (watched on a screen above the stage) from a new documentary about the author’s life and work. This will be seen first in her native Canada, but hopefully broadcast elsewhere at a later date. Particularly interesting were the scenes from the Hay-on-Wye book festival, where Ms Atwood was followed by fans dressed in the familiar red robes.

Back to the live stage and the first major surprise of the evening. An actor stepped onto the stage to read the opening chapter from the new book. The audience was so surprised it didn’t even gasp. Why? Because we couldn’t be entirely sure… we thought it was… it couldn’t be… yes, it actually could… AUNT LYDIA!!!!! Ann Dowd herself, reading about her glorification in Gilead. Obviously worth the ticket price alone, and quite a revelation that the (un)holy terror of the Handmaids in reality is far younger, slighter and considerably less harried in person – but more of that later…

Time for the real star, as Samira Ahmed led Margaret Atwood to a pair of armchairs set to the audience’s right on the stage. The interview proper began with Atwood’s account of writing the first book in 1984 Berlin. Pre-unification, the enclosed atmosphere echoed that of the times she wrote about. The film had shown us how the first 60 pages were written long-hand, with many revisions and notes, before being typed on a rented German-language typewriter. Somehow appropriate, another level of creative restriction to be overcome.

The discussion ranged over the reasons for the new novel being set later – the author wanted to bring in new voices and angles that couldn’t be discussed by a “handmaid” who would have known nothing of the regime’s inner workings. Parallels were drawn with historical figures including Oliver Cromwell, and Atwood demonstrated her breathtakingly wide knowledge of history and political science as well as anthropology.

What particularly struck me was how different she seemed when able to present in the relaxed auditorium. Frankly, from previous television interviews, I’d expected a rather wild eccentric caricature “elderly mad-woman writer.” Margaret Atwood is none of those. Quietly spoken soft Canadian accent, exceptionally quick-minded and thoughtful yet direct and concise with each answer, utterly fascinating.

Time for two more readings. At microphones on stage to the audience’s left, Sally Hawkins read first, one account – testament – from a youngster of Gilead. Lengthy, but with sustained interest. Lily James followed, a second testament delivered with relaxed confidence.

Following them, Ann Dowd took the stage once more, with a terrific moment. Before commencing with her final reading, she fixed both young women with an “Aunt Lydia” stare. Yes, out of nowhere, Dowd transformed with a simple lift of the head into that dragon. The hard appraising look made both victims flinch visibly – and had exactly the same effect on those of us sitting that side of the auditorium. The moment passed, and we heard a few more chilling words.

Back to the interview, and the final segment became philosophical as Atwood discussed meeting “Resistance” workers from World War Two. Why did they risk themselves to shelter victims of an evil regime? The only conclusion one survivor could suggest was that it was so that they could live with themselves afterwards.

Concluding with a trio of audience questions, Atwood couldn’t think of a indicator that Female Equality had been reached. Her feeling was that we would simply know. Having read her books, seen the television adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and been present at this remarkable event to launch her new book, perhaps a suggestion: maybe it will be when women feel free – and are allowed to be free – to be themselves? That they can go about their daily lives as men do, without fear or judgement. It’s a thought.

Quite an evening, and what a way to begin a new chapter in the world-renowned universe one woman has created.

5 stars.

 

 

 

 

 

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