Machinal at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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Machinal

Almeida Theatre, 27th June 2018

I always like to do as much reading as I can before seeing a play. Reviews, synopses, articles, cross referencing creatives to previous work. You get the idea. The SO however will have none of that, preferring to go in cold and then see what she makes of it. And so it was with Machinal at the Almeida. Which made it a great deal more fun for me when I asked her after we came out to guess when it was written. She guessed the 1980s and was taken aback when I told her that Sophie Treadwell wrote this, her most famous and provocative play, in 1928.

For the most striking thing about the play is its modernity. It has an Expressionist structure, with nine scenes (“episodes”) and 29 characters telling the story of A Young Woman, (named Helen Jones we learn at the end), from her dull office job as a stenographer who lives with her Mother, through to her trial and execution after she murders her Husband, George H. Jones. It is inspired by the notorious real-life case of Ruth Snyder, but Sophie Treadwell significantly changes the facts of that case to portray the Young Woman as, in part, a victim of the mores of the patriarchal society she lived in. This is what has made the play relevant to later generations as this woman’s story could have been told yesterday. The rhythm of the dialogue, the choice of scenes, the motivations of the character,s all display a formal invention that was apparently not so apparent in most of Ms Treadwell’s other, more prosaic, plays (there are 39 in total). Her prime concern though in these plays, and in her short stories and journalism (which also took in sport, theatre and WWI), is the place of women in contemporary society, specifically in the domestic and economic spheres, the role of journalism and questions of race, all of which are addressed here.

Interest in her work waned after her death but has increased over the last three decades or so with major revivals of Machinal. It is easy to see why for this is a startling play. Not just in the story, which is gripping enough, and in the message, a powerful indictment, but in the way in which Ms Treadwell structured the play. I have to think there must be valuable creative opportunity in the rest of her dramatic oeuvre based on this.

No surprise to see this play paired in this Almeida spring/summer season with Ella Hickson’s brilliant The Writer (The Writer at the Almeida Theatre review *****). They both subvert dramatic form in order to express controlled fury at the way women’s desires and creativity are crushed by the expectations of men. And both remember to deliver their ideas in a thrillingly entertaining way.

Director Natalie Abrahami locates this production at the opening in a recognisably late 1920’s America but thereafter adds timeless twists to reinforce how little has changed. Miriam Buether’s set is framed, (in a way similar to The Twilight Zone on this stage), so that each scene is viewed through a window as it were, which, in turn, is reflected by a mirror angled above the stage. This creates a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere and allows for some dramatic contrasts between each scene, (and some extraordinarily quick work by the stage management team at the Almeida led here by Kate McDowell who could give a Formula 1 pit stop crew a run for their money). The opening scene, rows of typewriters and desks, is a tour de force as the Young Woman’s colleagues gossip and bicker as she is hauled up before the boss who eventually becomes her Husband.

The rapid fire dialogue is matched by the superb sound design of the Ringham brothers and lighting of young Jack Knowles, (together these might just be my favourite sound and lighting team especially when it comes to more uninhibited shows). All this sound and rhythm is written into Sophie Treadwell’s text which is astoundingly modernist. Subsequent scenes, at home with Mother, as the Young Woman talks herself into the doomed marriage, in the hotel room on the honeymoon night, especially queasy, in the bar where the Young Woman, helping out a colleague on a double “date’ begins her ill-fated affair with a Man, through to the courtroom scenes and the execution, are also brilliantly realised. There is so much that the Almeida gets right which makes it the best theatre in London right now, but the quality and imagination of the design is always just amazing.

Emily Berrington is spot on as the Young Woman. She is simultaneously the author of her own fate, (the real life Ruth Snyder was the instigator of her husband’s murder egging on her lover), with agency, but also sometimes apparently meek, helpless, naive, accepting, submissive even. She is disgusted by her work and husband but, when offered a way out of the trap, she seizes it, albeit with tragic consequences. The murder is not shown. It is simply the consequence of her escape from the inexorable social and economic forces that weigh down on her. She falls in love, real passion, but, here too, she is eventually disappointed and disillusioned.

Denise Black as her caustic Mother, husband long gone, is from a generation with absolutely no opportunity and sees an “economic” marriage as her daughter’s only path. Jonathan Livingstone as the smothering Husband sees her as a trophy and baby-maker with no interest in her thoughts, ideas or well-being. The Doctor, (Andrew Lewis), in the hospital where she gives birth to the daughter she doesn’t want is a patronising tosser. Her lover (Dwane Walcott) offers excitement, a path to an imagined new life, but you know his interest in her is transient, and he soon takes her for granted too.

Machinal means mechanical or automatic in French and this is what Sophie Treadwell seeks to reveal, the trapped automaton. The art of the 1910s and 1920s was preoccupied with the rapid social and economic change brought on by the rise of the machine. Yet this crushing imperative is contrasted by a series of emotional monologues delivered by the Young Woman which describe her resistance and which only theatre can proffer. I was struck by the resemblance to Alice Birch’s outstanding Anatomy of a Suicide shown at the Royal Court Downstairs directed by Katie Mitchell. Another breathtakingly original, formally experimental, superbly staged dissection of female entrapment with a tragic, repeated, outcome. That too didn’t need swathes of expositional dialogue to get the story across, just rapid, vivid exchanges. Yet that was written in 2015 not 1928.

So another hit for the Almeida. Next up is Dance Nation which is probably not for me but I can’t wait to see what Rupert Goold and the team have up their sleeve for the autumn/winter season.

 

Albion at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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Albion

Almeida Theatre, 21st October 2017

Now we all know Mike Bartlett is a great writer. If you don’t know his stage work then, if you love your telly in the UK, you will likely have come across his mini-series Doctor Foster. So you will know that he can write a totally gripping story and that he is not averse in taking liberties with plot construction in order to generate a few outrageous WTF moments. Now it helps that this series was blessed with some top-drawer acting talent in Suranne Jones, (up next in a revival of Frozen alongside Jason Watkins and Nina Sosanya at Theatre Royal Haymarket in what looks like casting made in heaven), the chameleonic Bertie Carvel (I would watch anything he does), Adam James (ditto and who is a Mike Bartlett veteran) and the gifted Victoria Hamilton.

And it is Ms Hamilton who takes the leading role of Audrey Walters in Albion. She is, quite simply, brilliant. I will get to the play shortly but just let me wax lyrical about Victoria Hamilton for a bit. Her Audrey is sharp, snappy, curt, brusque, tactless. A seemingly detached mother. A wife who takes her (second) husband for granted. A friend who has no interest in the life of her oldest chum. An alpha businesswoman. Yet she is also very funny, and, as we increasingly find out, vulnerable. At the heart of Mr Bartlett’s rich text it seems that Audrey, in all her contradiction, is all of us, or more specifically, is this country, whatever it might be. I guess the clue was always in the title but Albion is an allegory which takes a substantial domestic family drama as the mechanism to explore issues of national identity, place and heritage. The Brexit convulsions ooze out of the very earth, of which there is plenty on stage, though the accursed word is never mentioned.

It is a bloody marvellous role and an equally marvellous performance. You may have seen Ms Hamilton in other roles on the telly, maybe in costume dramas and the like, and I envy you if you have seen her on the stage, for she is an infrequent board-treader. Her stage reputation is immense though. I can now see why. I have no right to ask, as someone who sits around on his lardy arse most days, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE Victoria, come back to the stage soon when this one is over. Mind you if this doesn’t get a West End transfer, I’ll be gobsmacked (though I can see some logistical challenges).

Panegyric over. What about the play? Our Audrey has left her successful “home-stuff” business in the hands of the minions. She has bought a pile she knew from childhood in rural Oxfordshire. and left London behind. It is the garden that matters to her though. It had been created by a certain Mr Weatherbury and was of immense national importance. It has gone to rack and ruin. Audrey wants to sink some of cash into restoring it to its former glory (see where we are going ….), and create a memorial to the dead of the Great War, and, we quickly learn, her son James, who was pointlessly killed in one of the recent wars. With her come her browbeaten, though wryly optimistic, husband Paul (a spot on Nicholas Rowe) and self-absorbed, millenial daughter Zara (an anxious Charlotte Hope) who wants to write and would rather be in London. Audrey inherits a couple of retainers in husband/gardener and wife/housekeeper Matthew (Christopher Fairbank, hard to imagine anyone else better suited to the part) and Cheryl (Margot Leicester, who shows perfect comic timing) but they are getting on a bit so Audrey, somewhat tactlessly, recruits ambitious Polish cleaning entrepreneur Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), and the rather enigmatic local boy Gabriel (a compelling Luke Thallon) to help . Our cast is completed by Anna (Vinette Robinson, who convinces in what is a tricky role), who is James’s grieving girlfriend, Katherine Sanchez (Helen Schlesinger), very successful writer, best friend of Audrey since university and overt “remainer”, and conservative neighbour, Edward (Nigel Betts).

No commentary on what happens next. I insist you see for yourself. There are though some moments of very high drama as the tensions between the characters unfold. Some of these scenes push us to the edge of credulity but, as with Mr Bartlett’s other work, he gets away with it because it is so damnably thrilling. 

Rupert Goold’s direction doesn’t stand in the way of any of this, indeed positively encourages it, and it gives his lighting (Neil Austin), sound (Gregory Clarke) and movement (Rebecca Frecknall) colleagues room to have some real fun. All the action is set in the red garden “room” of Weatherbury’s original design. Miriam Buether’s “thrust” forward design is a cracker. A raised oval lawn with trusty oak tree and seat at the back and with a bed all around which is transformed halfway through. This England indeed. 

If the set up above sounds like a certain Mr Anton Chekhov you’d be right. It unashamedly has Cherry Orchard crawling all over it, and, greedy bugger that he is, he even takes a few feathers out of The Seagull. Why not though? Chekhov being the perfect template for showcasing the intersection of the personal and the political, the delineation of class, the weight of history and the vice of nostalgia. The garden itself is a quintessential metaphor for change. We English have always been good at gardens and don’t we just love ’em. Chekhov meshes comedy, tragedy and banality whilst hurling in a few bombshells. Mr Bartlett does the same.

Into this set-up then is layered a whole series of perspectives of what “we”, have been, are now, and, possibly, are going to be, now “we” have taken this unprecedented step. The short answer, if you were to ask me, is that “we” have been monumentally stupid. Mr Bartlett, as you might expect, is rather less dogmatic, and offers ambiguity (and indeed his greatest nod to Chekhov), at the end. He reminds us that even dear old Blighty is regularly convulsed by clashes between those who welcome the future, and those who cling to the past. Because, in some way or other, we all embrace this dichotomy.

The text swirls with meaning. Perhaps a little too much. This is what holds me back from a full-on JFG 5* review. Direction, staging, performances – all tip top. Garden as metaphor, check. Chekhov as inspiration, check. Formal structure, check. Narrative arc, check. Plot and characters, check. Ideas and meaning, a qualified check. Not the subject, no way, nothing right now more important could appear on a London stage. Just that maybe a few of the threads can could have been pulled a little more tightly together.

Minor criticism. This is still a hefty slab of theatre which captures the zeitgeist. Maybe not quite as immediately remarkable as the last combination of Mike Bartlett and Rupert Goold at this very venue, King Charles III. But it may well turn out to have even greater resonance as, brace yourselves, the impact of this Brexit caper has only just begun.