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.

 

Wings at the Young Vic review ****

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Wings

Young Vic Theatre, 18th October 2017

Turns out there are a few tickets left for the final week or so of Wings. You could do worse than snapping one up. I cannot pretend it is a masterpiece, but the performance of the wonderful Juliet Stevenson, under the direction of Natalie Abrahami and with the design of Michael Levine, is astonishing.

Ms Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, whose world has been shattered by a stroke which renders time, place, speech, language and thought meaningless. We see her move from a world of utter incomprehension, hers and those around her, through to partial recovery. The rest of the cast play the various members of the medical team and other stroke victims, though they don’t have much to play with in Arthur Kopit’s script. Mrs Stilson had been a stunt pilot who had stepped out on to the wings of planes in the past and it is this motif than informs the play and production. From the opening, and throughout the 70 minutes of the performance, Juliet Stevenson is rigged up to a harness which allows her to fly above and around the stage. She soars, she twists, she turns, she tumbles, she occasionally comes to the ground. It really is the most remarkable physical tour de force, devised by movement director Anna Morrissey and a team from Freedom Flying. At the same time as delivering this bravura feat, Ms Stevenson delivers a notable vocal performance as she captures Mrs Stilson’s fractured Waspish speech and lapses of memory. She certainly more than earns her fee here.

This striking visual conceit certainly captures the dislocation between what is going on internally in Mrs Stilson’s brain and what is visible to the external world. As an academic theatrical document of the impact of a stroke I am hard pressed to see how it might be improved. The audience moves along a path from total disorientation, through to a qualified understanding of what has happened to our leading character. Yet we don’t really get to see the person that lies beneath the condition. We make no real emotional connection to her. This was originally a radio play and I am guessing the stage version normally involves a rather more static lead. That could be quite wearing I fear.

This production however wins out through the spectacular visuals and the stunning craft of Juliet Stevenson. Whenever, and wherever, she is on stage your eye and ear are drawn to her. She was a tactile Gertrude in Robert Icke’s revelatory Hamlet and a stern Elizabeth in the same director’s Mary Stuart, but in this play, and as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days at this venue a couple of years ago, she is peerless. And fearless.

I had a notion the other day that we Brits, wherever we come from, might be better governed by a matriarchy of our greatest stage actresses. Juliet Stevenson would be Foreign Secretary. Surely an improvement on the clown who currently occupies the seat.

Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

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Queen Anne

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 3rd August 2017

Tricky customers history plays. How to introduce the characters and explain events without slackening the dramatic pace. It’s OK if your Will Shakespeare. He wrote the history. Or at least someone before him wrote something, which he then purloined and turned it into a great work of art with those words, oh those beautiful words. And ever since people have half-believed his stories were based on solid facts. Mind you historical “facts” are a slippery business anyway. Always shaped by the narrator. I’m with the master of wry Alan Bennett: “History is just one f*cking thing after another”. A quote he stole in any event from a distinguished academic, though no-one seems sure which prof. said it first. See what I mean.

Anyway the writer of Queen Anne, Helen Edmundson opts for the direct approach to exposition with characters bluntly announcing their identity and, when necessary, the unfolding key events. This ensures that we the audience can follow the action without the need for intensive background reading but it does mean the first third of the play feels a little disjointed. However once the dramatis personae are established and the various themes laid out we then get a fine story simply told under the direction of Natalie Abrahami.

The focus of the play is the relationship between Queen Anne (Emma Cunniffe) and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai). Anne accedes to the throne on the death of her childless brother in law William III (played in barking king mode by Dave Fishley). You know he was the Dutch fella we invited over with wife Mary to keep the Catholics off the throne. He landed at Brixham, also famous as the birthplace of the Tourist. Hurrah. Here he is. Unusually without a seagull crapping on his head.

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Anyway Anne is a Stuart but the right sort as a Protestant. She is also childless despite seventeen pregnancies, a very sorry state of affairs. Her husband, Prince George of Denmark (Hywel Morgan) is a full on booby. Anne is, initially at least, physically and temperamentally, not really up to the job, so her childhood friend Lady Sarah and her circle of Whigs do their best to manipulate her to their own ends. Our Lady Sarah just happens to be the wife of John Churchill, whose rise to become leader of the Protestant forces across Europe in the War of the Spanish Succession against mighty France and Spain, (after a few false starts), brings recognition, wealth and prestige. This was a turbulent time in English (and with the Act of Union in 1707, British) politics and the play does an excellent job in drawing this out, as Anne seeks to make her mark and shifts allegiances towards the Tories led by Speaker Robert Harley (very well played by James Garnon). This was the era when Britain moved into the first division of European powers (though war proved an expensive business) as the Catholic powers were faced down and as capital was accumulated largely on the back of the slave trade (yes all you proud Brexiteers, these are the foundations your glorious country is built upon).

The tempestuous Lady Sarah gets the hump as her influence on Anne dissipates and gets properly jealous of Abigail Hill (played by Beth Park) another scheming ingenue who comes from nothing to become the Queen’s new bosom buddy. Sarah leaks some salacious correspondence but this backfires and she, her husband and her circle are debilitated (though the family has seemed to rub along ever since down the centuries – go see Bleinhem Palace is you don’t believe me).

These events are interspersed with some entertaining song and dance routines. This was after all the period which saw the rise of the popular press, in the form of pamphlets, and the emergence of political satire. The great British public, OK the emergent newly rich grasping oligarch Whigs (land alone no longer being the route to power), had put the monarchy back in its box and weren’t above any ruse to slap down the Tories, high Church and sniff out any whiff of Jacobitism.

So a fascinating time, an important monarch who ruled at a pivotal period in England’s history, and a well realised portrait of an intense relationship. Emma Cunniffe and Romola Garai both give very credible performances as Anne and Sarah and there is real passion in parts of the second half. But this is no Mary Stuart and there were times when I was hoping for a few more twists and turns. On the other hand if this is the sort of thing that floats your boat, and on balance I would say it should, then I see there are plenty of tickets left at very attractive prices, so give it a whirl.