It was a few years ago now that in a reference book I encountered a mention of a Russian novella about a romantic murderess haunted by a ghostly cat. I sought out the story - it took a bit of searching! - and then a little while after encountered Shostakovich's opera based on the story: I remember getting hold of a box set CD of it just after getting my first ever BBC drama commission, for A Hundred Miles - another story set in Russia. In fact, I stole some Russian cuss-words for my play from the Russian libretto of the Shostakovich opera!
The Leskov story was always lurking somewhere at the back of my mind... I suppose its indirect influence can be seen in my novel Aztec Love Song...
Aztec Love Song - my novel
...which again features a very uncompromisingly murderous anti-heroine, although that's not set in Russia but in my own home town of Newton Mearns. But when Wireless Theatre Company, who'd produced Medusa On The Beach, Blood And Stone (in conjunction with 3D Horror Fi) and Redder Than Roses asked for suggestions for an adaptation that could be pitched to BBC Radio 4, it was top of my list. And at last after a few rejiggings (it was going to be a 2 part serial, then a one hour one off, then suddenly a 45 minute afternoon play), it was commissioned - on a very hit-the-ground-running schedule.
But the piece basically wrote itself (sort of): the Leskov plot was so tight and brilliant, the only trouble was cramming everything (or nearly everything) in - and the short running time forced me to curb my more baroque flourishes in terms of language in favour of a terse, laconic style... which in itself suggested something of the dialogue in the 40s films noirs which we'd used as a reference point in selling the idea in the first place. And then suddenly we were round Cherry Cookson's house in the bright August sunshine, recording this evocation of Russia's chilly wastes in her back garden and her son's bedroom. And it all worked!
Good casting helped enormously. I've learned the hard way that the one thing a dramatist can't survive is miscasting - but here everything worked perfectly. We had a certain well known actress from a certain lah-di-dah high end soap lined up to play our anti-heroine Katerina, but she exercised a star's prerogative to drop you in the deep end at the last moment, forcing poor Cherry to recast over the phone while stuck in a traffic jam... she had an ex-student she thought might be able to handle the role, a prospect that gave one momentary pause... what was this - nepotism where we'd been after a Big Name??? But in fact Rochenda Sandall was/is utterly brilliant in the role - all this playwright could have asked for. Away from the mic, she's a bubbly laugh-a-minute young woman, in front of the mic she's fully wedded to the character's crazy, passionate intensity. If she's not a Big Name now, she will be very soon, I suspect.
As male lead we had Joe Armstrong. Joe was just back from holiday... unfortunately, he'd come back with a sore throat and worried about his ability to cope with the vocal demands of the role. That first day, he spent all his free time collapsed across a bed, trying to muster his strength for the next take, apologising to us, convinced he sounded like some hoarse subterranean monster in a horror flick, even as we kept reassuring him "No, no, Joe, it sounds fine." And then the second day his sore throat had miraculously cleared up - and now he worried he wouldn't sound like the same guy who'd done the other half of the scenes the day before. But again we reassured him that on-mic you couldn't tell the difference. And hearing him in the final cut was a revelation; they used to always say that when Gene Hackman acted on set, he hardly seemed to be doing that much, but then you saw him on screen you suddenly realised what a powerfully etched performance he'd created. Joe, I think, is a bit like that in front of a radio mic: what he does is very subtle, internal, he thinks deeply about what he's doing, asks a lot of questions... and you wind up, in Lady M with a performance of real power.
Backing those two up we had an ensemble of real skill, ranging from well known character actors to those who'd got their break through Wireless Theatre, such as Jessica Dennis who'd just given a terrific performance in another of my plays, Redder Than Roses, playing Mary, Queen Of Scots. Then the whole thing went into the editing suite... I was anxious about this as my previous BBC production Rough Magick had had to lose about 10 minutes in the editing room - and I was particularly worried the violence of the story would get cut away to nothing... and the hard clear eye Leskov has for violence is one of the great aesthetic virtues of his story - it's one of the great things Russians like Leskov or Dostoevsky do... they don't keep the hard dark edge of life at a genteel distance - like, for example, their English contemporaries. They go in hard for the hard gritty truths of life. A Glaswegian can relate to that....
Anyway, the violence survived, as close to intact as I could have wished for (I'm willing to concede that in the script I maybe pushed a wee bit TOO far - rather than play safe!)... this is quite an intense piece when all's done and dusted. I have this fancy of folk listening on Friday after sitting through The Archers, thinking "19th century Russia? Set on a farm? Unhappy marriage? It must be like a sort of Russian version of the Archers...." and then getting knocked out of their seats by what we have for them.
Anyway, there it is -- and it goes out this Friday at 2.15 pm, and then onto the iPlayer for the next 7 days. I hope people like it... Radio Times certainly did. But it's the play I had in mind all along, certainly. It's not every time round I'm as completely happy with a production as I am with this - and for that I thank Cherry, Mariele and the wonderful cast (although I should add that if you listen very closely you can hear me shouting and mumbling in the background as a sort of extra filling out the crowd scenes... it's long been a tradition with me to do a bit of a 'Hitchcock' in my radio plays... I'm a soldier dying horribly in Ghost Zone (shortly to return to BBC Radio 4 Extra - and I'm a cackling demonic partygoer in Catch My Breath...)
Anyway, here's the link to the appropriate page on the BBC Radio 4 website - although it talks about my dialogue being 'Shakespearean'... not sure I can live up to that!