Books in Brief: Catherine Merridale, Matthew Kneale and Chickenshed Theatre

Three new books you may have missed.

Red Fortress: the Secret Heart of Russia’s History
Catherine Merridale

The Kremlin is more than just a place, writes Catherine Merridale: it is an idea. Created in the 12th century as a military fortress (much of the compound was designed by Italian architects), it has been a symbol of absolute power for the best part of 1,000 years. Its roles have included palace, religious centre, military operations hub and very centre of both monarchies and communism. Along the way, it has stored the Russian crown jewels and, in 1941, a cache of radium. In the minds of Russians and the rest of the world alike, the Kremlin is Russia in bricks and mortar.

Allen Lane, 528pp, £30

An Atheist’s History of Belief
Matthew Kneale

Matthew Kneale is an atheist but not a militant one. In this unusual and personal history, he seeks not to disprove belief in its various forms but to discover why we believe and what has shaped those beliefs. He looks at the great faiths and at other, less numinous creeds, such as Marxism. Kneale is a former Man Booker Prizenominated novelist. He structures his book as a collection of stories, lucidly told. He is not interested in institutions but in religion as a fundamental need – it is, he argues, “humankind’s greatest imaginative project”.

Bodley Head, 272pp, £16.99

Chickenshed: an Awfully Big Adventure
Elizabeth Thomson

The Chickenshed Theatre Company was founded in 1974 by Jo Collins, a musician and composer, and Mary Ward, a teacher and director, in the belief that everyone has a talent that can be put to good use. Their inclusive model has attracted support – both financial and moral – from Alan Bennett, Elaine Page and Guy Ritchie (“This is the England I want,” Ritchie has said). Their story is told in this celebratory coffee-table book, with spotlights on individual company members and an affectionate foreword by Judi Dench.

Elliott & Thompson, 248pp, £25

Books on the beach in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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