Machinal

Posted by Laurence Green

An illuminating insight into a woman’s desperate soul is provided by Sophie Treadwell in her 90-year-old masterpiece Machinal, given a fresh lease of life in Natalie Abrahami’s compelling new stage production at the Almeida Theatre.

Machinal at the Almeida. Khali Best, Andrew Lewis, Emily Berrington, Nathalie Armin. Photo credit Johan Persson

The play is inspired by the real-life case of Ruth Snyder who in 1927 was the first woman in New York State to be executed for the murder of her husband. Treadwell was an American playwright and journalist who wrote Machinal in 1928. It follows a restless woman, Helen, who works as a stenographer and lives with her mother and, choked by conformity, trapped by work, motherhood and an increasingly claustrophobic marriage, is driven to murder her husband after she has an affair.

This is a powerful drama which provides an emphatic portrait of a young woman wrestling with the system: the coldness of work; the harshness of the metropolis, the threat of machines and the tyranny of men. The opening scene itself acts as a microcosm for the expressionist classic that follows. We are in a claustrophobic city commute where the protagonist is crushed between the jostling bodies of men around her, the noise is cacophonous, the darkness consuming. Though the space may open up slightly as the drama’s episodes progress – work to marriage, motherhood to murder – that sense of suffocation never leaves.

Abrahami never lets up the propulsive pace, the sense of rushing destiny and is ably assisted by a clever soundscape by Ben and Max Bingham, which fills every scene with the clatter of noise, and understated choreography by Arthur Pita which combines naturalism and stylisation in a single gesture.

Miriam Buether’s stunning design is dominated by a large ceiling mirror, acting as a constant reminder of the hidden side of scenes of “normal” domesticity.

Emily Berrington brings a wounded seriousness to the central role of Helen, trapped by convention, yet relentlessly wondering whether she can speak up for herself. Her most vivid moments are with Duane Walcott, the cool lover who seems a blissful alternative to her self-absorbed smothering husband, played by Jonathan Livingstone. There is also a striking performance by Denise Black as her mother, who is overwhelming enough in her nagging to make the audience understand why her daughter might marry someone just to get away from her.

An intense, visceral experience, then, that you will not forget in a hurry!

Machinal

Runs until Saturday 21 July 2018 at the Almeida Theatre, London.
Box office: 020 7359 4404

Photos: ©Johan Persson.

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