“Lady Macbeth,” a new drama based on Nikolai Leskov’s Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk,” is not your father’s period drama. Disturbing and diabolical, it’s an erotic thriller that examines gender politics, power and class.
Set in rural northern England in 1865 we first meet Katherine (Florence Pugh) when she is just seventeen-years-old, sold, along with a plot of land, into an arranged marriage with a much older man, Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton). Her job, according to the cruel and unyielding family patriarch Boris (Christopher Fairbank), is to provide an heir to the family fortune but their marriage is a sham, loveless and impotent.
When Alexander abruptly leaves for an extended trip abroad she is left behind in the rambling, damp manor home. Alone, save for a handful of servants, including Anna (Naomi Ackie), she is bored and unhappy until she meets groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). The two begin a torrid affair, unafraid of prying eyes. “He hates his father,” she says of Alexander, “he hates me. He won’t come back.” Except he does come back, pushing Katherine to extreme measures to preserve her relationship with Sebastian.
More “The Making of a Murderer” than “Wuthering Heights,” ice runs through the veins of “Lady Macbeth.” Cold and austere, the story of sexual rebellion is given life by Pugh’s mesmerizing performance. Her insolence and opportunism are fascinating to watch as she thumbs her nose at the social norms of the day. Don’t let the stillness of her performance fool you. Her calm, collected demeanour hides Katherine’s conniving nature but much is revealed in the small details. The fire in her eyes as Alexander says, “I do not like owning a whore,” the tilt of her head as Boris berates her. In her case, the devil is literally in the details. It’s tremendous work that should spell big things for her.
She is ably supported by Ackie and Jarvis. Ackie, in a performance of few words still manages to convey a great depth of feeling while Jarvis is compellingly plays a man torn between the physical pleasures Katherine offers and the metaphysical consequences of their actions.
Through Katherine’s power struggle “Lady Macbeth” deftly shows how the various hierarchies of class—patriarch Boris controls Alexander, Alexander dominates Katherine (or thinks he does) leaving her with power over the house staff—can be upended in a ruthless social coup. The oppressed become conquerors and vice versa in a story that treats vengeance like an everyday event.