The Stage, 2013


No one ever accused Lady Macbeth of a lack of ambition. Her Russian literary counterpart, though, is more of a desperate housewife from one of the darker corners of Wisteria Lane, where the sex is murderous and the career ladder begins and ends with power lunches.

House special today – poisoned mushrooms for the father-in-law. So begins the killing spree of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, inspired by Shakespeare’s arch manipulator, and sharing a instinct for murder as a means of social mobility.

This is the first BBC Radio 4 production from Wireless Theatre in addition to its fantastic work offering free access to new productions online at Leskov’s 1865 novella, adapted by Marty Ross, forms the basis of an intriguing exploration of murder by the female hand. The grandiosity and lust for power exhibited by the original Lady M is not echoed in Katerina, Leskov’s Mtsensky minx, whose actions seem fuelled partly by hormones but mostly are a product of her environment.

She is the wrong gender living in the wrong time – apart from any happy accident of birth, her only currency is her marriageability. Katerina (played with sharp-tongued intensity by Rochenda Sandall) is in an unhappy, childless union with Zinovy (Harry Myers).

Although the fertility problem appears to be his, she is taunted by his father Boris (Trevor Cuthbertson), who, between jibes, runs the estate with his son. The tough rural environs and contempt for women are flagged up early when a maid is abused by workmen, whose lack of deference to lady of the manor Katerina would give Julian Fellowes palpitations.

In a pairing that isn’t quite Lady Chatterley, she falls for farmhand Sergei (Joe Armstrong, rough machismo failing to hide a fatal weakness), at which point Boris and then Zinovy are bumped off, the latter interred in the cellar walls. Surveying her husband’s corpse, Katerina tells her lover, “This just married us like no priest could”, indicating that her aim is domesticity with her horny-handed labourer. She is even content to let Zinovy’s young nephew inherit half the estate, but Sergei’s greed prevails and the young boy is suffocated.

It is not implied that Katerina’s actions are forgiveable. Under Cherry Cookson’s direction, the production is steeped in evil, curdling and warping even as Katerina dreams of yowling cats with Boris’ head – a reminder of Lady M’s guilt-ridden attempts to wash away invisible blood.

The play’s pace is relentless. Within half an hour, the couple are in chains en route to Siberia, where the River Volga awaits to accept more bodies. A longer slot than the Afternoon Drama would allow more consideration of its arresting themes.

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