“I wanted to make an anti-bonnet period drama,” acclaimed U.K. theater director Oldroyd says mirthfully of his first feature, “Lady Macbeth,” a starkly sensual adaptation of Russian author Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” He succeeded. Relocated to Victorian England, this morally ambiguous tragedy of a headstrong teenage girl married off to a cruel mining magnate has little of the decorative daintiness associated with British corset dramas. Made for £350,000 through Creative England’s iFeatures initiative, the film — scooped by Roadside Attractions at Toronto — makes a virtue of its microbudget, its pared-back production values reflecting its protagonist’s austere outlook.
For Oldroyd, who “mucked about with video” at art college in the mid-1990s before shifting into a successful theater career via a RADA course in directing dramaturgy, “Lady Macbeth” seemed an ideal segue into cinema. “What I’d most enjoyed doing in theater was contemporized classics,” he explains, citing such productions as a modern-day staging of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” at London’s Young Vic. His agent, who had signed Oldroyd following his auspicious 2013 short “Best,” introduced Oldroyd to screenwriter Alice Birch, who pitched him Leskov’s book over coffee.
“I know nothing about cameras whatsoever,” Oldroyd says, though his theater background has its advantages. “I’ve got filmmaker friends who can really break down in their heads how to shoot a scene, but they tell me I have a different language with actors. And a sense of basic dramaturgy was very useful when trying to edit the thing.” Still, stepping onto set for the first time was “terrifying”: “In theater rehearsal, it’s just you and the actors and the writer, not 30 people waiting to see if you have any idea what you’re doing.”
Oldroyd will venture further outside his comfort zone with his next planned project, an adaptation of African-American crime writer Walter Mosley’s New York-set, racially charged novel “The Man in My Basement.” “It’s not territory I know well at all,” he says. “That’s what excites me about it.”