Hay despatch #1

Our festival correspondent listens to Nadine Gordimer, Ed Miliband and Grayson Perry.

Stunning sculpture, stories, sun and strawberries were all to be found at the first weekend of this year's Hay literary festival. A lady made from bronze resin lies on the grass reading, and around the elegant sculpture by Carol Peace festival-goers are milling, enlivened by provocative Q&A sessions.

"If you're interested in the world and in people, in love and death, in what is the best thing to do and how to be happy, then Hay is a great place to be," said the festival's founder and director, Peter Florence.

"Forget about creative writing schools, please," advised the South African author Nadine Gordimer in her enthralling talk. "My only advice is read, read, read, read. That's why libraries are so important. You learn to become critical."

As for Gordimer's own vocations, she revealed an unexpected one: "I intended to be a belly dancer," she said, joking that she was glad that she discovered writing, otherwise she'd be washed up by now.

Gordimer mused on the various disciplines of poetry, prose and short stories: "Poetry is the most disciplined of the non-fiction writing. I discovered I'm not up to that," whereas a short story (like "a firefly illumination") comes to her complete. As for the impulse to write fiction at all, she quoted Graham Greene's point that you "don't know anyone completely. You look at them and invent an alternative life."

All writers will face criticism at some point in their career, but "if you have any integrity at all, you find that your books get banned. What do you want to do? Pretend everything is fine? Tell fairy tales?"

* * *

The weekend offered not only literature, but also comedy, music, politics and art. Grayson Perry was to be seen wandering around the Hay Festival site, clad in a bright dress.

"I used to be a bitter artist but now I try to be happy," he said during a discussion of his career, complete with intriguing slideshow. Perry also revealed that he suffered for a long time from "imposter syndrome" and lacked feelings of entitlement.

* * *

At an evening event, the Labour leadership candidate Ed Miliband commented on the first scandal of the new government, David Laws's resignation. He expressed sympathy for the short-lived chief secretary to the Treasury. As for his own career, Miliband said: "I don't miss the trappings of ministerial power at all . . . Government can have a stifling effect."

As an "expert rider of multiple horses", asked his interviewer, "what is your irreducible core?". To which Miliband replied that it is his sense that Britain is an unjust society and that we should do something about that.

His "prescription" for the problem includes decent wages, controlling the markets and "politically promoting love and compassion" by making more time for family, as he believes that inequality places tensions and strains on people.

Miliband refused to criticise his brother, David, or to characterise the differences between them, though he did concede that it was incredibly hard to run against him. "I'm not a factional person," he insisted. Miliband disputed his "nicey-nicey" image and believes he showed his "flintiness" over the Copenhagen summit. "I've been tested and responded," he said.

Gordon Brown, his political mentor, showed him how to "stand up for what he believed", and taught him "toughness", "persistence" and "doggedness". Miliband defended the record of the Labour government, stating that British society is now fairer and more tolerant.

He was taken to task by the audience, which grilled him about the financial crisis, politicians' fears for their own ambitions, and their hope that the Labour Party can win back disaffected voters.

Elsewhere on the festival site, Beth Orton's acoustic set echoed into the night, and later in the evening, at St Mary's Church, the Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad closed the day's entertainment.

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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