Thursday, 14 June 2018

Theatre review: Machinal

The Almeida’s current season of female playwrights now looks back to 1928 for a play whose expressionist style places it very firmly in that time, but whose script often feels almost unnervingly up-to-date. In Machinal, Sophie Treadwell despairs at the world treating all people like part of a machine, but there’s no question it’s women’s role in that machine that’s the particular target. Initially known only as Miss A, later revealed to be called Helen, Emily Berrington plays a young woman who works as a stenographer in a New York office where she doesn’t fit in, largely due to being the only one who openly admits she feels like she’s wasting her life there. Not that this deters the company vice-president, Jones (Jonathan Livingstone,) who proposes to her. Helen flinches at his touch, but she knows marriage is the expected next step in her life, and a wealthy husband would get her out of her 9-5 job, so she accepts.

As Treadwell was inspired to write her story by the first woman to be sent to the electric chair in New York, it’s clear this won’t end happily, but first Helen attempts to find some freedom in her life.

In one such attempt, Helen is taken to a speakeasy by the thoroughly modern Telephone Girl (Kirsty Rider,) where she’s charmed by Dwane Walcott’s Dick and begins an affair with him; much of his fascination for her is the fact that he once killed two men who’d abducted him in Mexico, and it’s this story that has a major effect on her life. Though the short play is relentless in its drive towards an inevitable conclusion, it doesn’t become oppressive. Berrington is a lead who elicits a lot of empathy as she’s worn down by life, and Denise Black provides some much-needed humour as her mother.

I don’t know if Natalie Abrahami has made any text changes for her production – no dramaturg is credited – but if not Machinal is an uncannily topical revival, from the overall theme of women being second-class citizens seen by men as sex objects, right down to throwaway comments about America’s contemptuous attitude towards Mexicans. In the speakeasy scene, we sometimes cut away from Helen and Dick in the foreground to hear from two tables in the background, where an older man (John Mackay) is trying to seduce a younger one (Khali Best) while further along a man (Demetri Goritsas) is trying to convince a woman (Augustina Seymour) to have an abortion.

Miriam Buether’s imposing set puts the action in a raised black box, with a mirrored ceiling leaving the characters nowhere to hide, and some very quick scene changes being done whenever a curtain slides ominously shut. It makes for a memorable staging although one that probably messes with the sightlines in the side stalls seats, as we could see ushers trying to reseat everyone from there before the show started. There’s a couple of distracting choices: Buether and costume designer Alex Lowde have employed a mix of time periods, but one domestic scene stands out as jarringly modern*; and in a production where most of the casting is pretty literal, Livingstone seems miscast as Jones, a man implied to be much older than Helen and physically repellent, neither of which the actor is. They’re odd choices that took me out of the moment a bit, but overall the play remains powerful and urgently contemporary.

Machinal by Sophie Treadwell is booking until the 21st of July at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

*apparently the design conceit is that we move on a decade with each scene, but I can’t say this specific idea comes across that clearly

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