Almeida Theatre, London – until 21 July 2018
Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play Machinal may be the story of one woman battling societal pressure but Natalie Abrahami’s production for the Almeida Theatre teases out a more elemental struggle, one which stretches over the majority of the 20th century and by extension, even further.
The story is rooted in its ordinariness. Emily Berrington’s Young Woman gets by at a job she doesn’t like, marries the first guy who shows an interest, gives birth to a child she scarcely wants – expectations check check checked. But as she learns that she wants more, can want more, the weight of societal pressure comes to bear.
Through Treadwell’s episodic, Expressionist viewpoint, and further filtered through Abrahami’s lens, that pressure is slowly tightened like thumbscrews. Helen’s world is intermittently filled with oppressive noise, as often in the form of a torrent of words from her own mouth as not, and Ben and Max Ringham’s sound and composition ratchet up this intensity.
Creatively, the production soars through the inventiveness of Miriam Buether’s set design. An angled mirror on the ceiling of its black box doubles down on our perspective as spectators. And the transitions between episodes are marked by the closing of giant shutters, facilitating the shift through the decades with a clinical smoothness.
There’s no mistaking that this is a cold and unfeeling world – presciently imagined by Treadwell – and Abrahami’s production is unafraid to reflect that. No matter how hot it is outside, it is distinctly chilly in here.