Almeida Theatre, London – until 21 July 2018
“Hell to be a woman.” Sophie Treadwell’s stylised, expressionist drama Machinal is a cry of rage, induced by a male-driven society that is modernised, mechanised and all the more efficient at grinding women down. The central character is ‘Young Woman’ played by Emily Berrington, who does what she is supposed to do, all the while terrified. She obediently marries her boss when he asks, but all the while the weight of society presses on her from all sides. Eventually, she kills him.
Treadwell wrote Machinal in 1928 after attending every day of the Ruth Snyder trial in New York, executed along with her lover for the murder of her husband. James M Cain was inspired to write Double Indemnity by the same trial. Treadwell’s response is intensely personal, reflecting the position of a woman in the city. Berrington plays the Young Woman brittle, assailed on all sides – by the din of clattering typewriters in the office where she works, by the uninvited attentions of her boss, the Husband (Jonathan Livingstone, impressively smug), by his body and by childbirth. She acquiesces at every turn and is horrified by the life that results. When she finds relief through her lover, the Man (Dwane Walcott), her and happiness are only brief, before he cooly provides the evidence that dooms her.
Natalie Abrahami’s production, designed by Miriam Buether, is very effective in creating a claustrophobia that builds to breaking point. From the very beginning, as the fire curtain letterboxes a writhing mass of bodies pressed around a gasping Berrington, the unstoppable processes of the mechanised world are viscerally created, carrying her on a course she never chooses. Between scenes, the audience is blinded by merciless, white neon tubes. Buether’s tilted mirror reflects the action back in helicopter view, while the expert sound design from Ben and Max Ringham is crucial. Abrahami makes the slightly risky decision to advance the time frame with each scene, beginning in the 1920s office of the play’s setting and ending with a contemporary huddle of TV reporters. This is subtly done, and a neat way to draw the play out of its context without undermining the text.
Ultimately, it’s Sophie Treadwell’s writing that makes Machinal something special. Treadwell was a prolific writer, but almost all her other plays are far more conventional. Machinal is an experimental piece full of staccato delivery and syncopated speech, jump cuts and cross fades, and the experiment is a huge success. She uses cutting edge techniques of the time to create a work that leaps out from its era. The play is short, spare and incredibly intense, with an ending that, although it shouldn’t be revealed in a review, defies belief. The play was a great success when first performed in 1928, and was rediscovered by the National Theatre in the early 1990s. Since then, it seems to have been mislaid again, but it deserves a much higher profile. A entirely contemporary play, it presents themes that are as current on the stage now as they were in Treadwell’s time. The Almeida’s excellent production should do a great deal to give it the respect is deserves.