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.