by Jennifer Bryce
In the early 1930s, Shostakovich wrote an opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, based on a novel by Nikolai Leskov. In 19th Century Russia, a lonely woman falls in love with one of her husband’s workers and is driven to murder. The Shostakovich opera is remembered as the trigger for the composer’s denunciation in an article in Pravda, that may have been written by Stalin. It was the first recognised act of Shostakovich’s suppression by the Communist Party. The opera was banned in Russia for 30 years.
William Olroyd, director of the recent film Lady Macbeth, has taken this story but set it in 19th century rural England. Katherine is the lonely woman living in a creaking manor house with her much older husband who seems to be unable to consummate the marriage – not a marriage of love, as Katherine has been bought, along with some land, by the husband’s father. The husband is strictly controlling, constraining the boisterous young woman within the confines of the house. The father-in-law grimly berates Katherine for not fulfilling her ‘wifely duties’.
When the two men travel away for some time, not surprisingly, Katherine explores the grounds and comes upon some of the men servants tormenting a maid (who happens to be black). The man leading this is Sebastian, the new footman. He is also black. Sebastian seems to be everything that Katherine’s husband is not and they have many passionate sexual encounters.
During this time a young boy is brought to the manor house (also black). He is the child of an affair Katherine’s husband had before their marriage. It is expected that Katherine will help raise the boy.
Katherine is different from Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth in that she doesn’t seem to be driven by ‘vaulting ambition’ , but some kind of independence, or liberation, coupled with lust. Bloody killing results – the husband when he returns, the father-in-law, and, most horrifically, the little boy. When brought to account, Katherine denies her part in the killings and has Sebastian and the maid sent to the gallows.
By this stage Katherine is pregnant with Sebastian’s child. I had expected that after Sebastian and the maid are sent off to their fate in a rickety cart, Katherine would hurl herself down the stairs, or meet some other violent self-inflicted end. But she remains there, alone in the manor house. No desperate need to wash her hands clean of the blood.