WATCHING the Almeida’s thumping production of Machinal, one would never think that the play was written before the Great Depression of the late 1920s. And by a woman at that, the pioneering Sophie Treadwell who in her wonderfully productive 85 year life wrote more than 30 plays, four novels and revelled for a while as an investigative journalist. A woman way before her time. A beacon of brilliance whose afterglow still shines brightly (and rightly so).
Director Natalie Abrahami deserves great credit because she has put together a splendid production that rattles along at a great pace. Frenetic, divided into nine episodes and with each one introduced by a screen (and blinding light) indicating the theme of the next scene. There is rarely a quiet moment as background noise invades the stage at every opportunity. The noise of manual typewriters, New York tenements where people live on top of each other, garbage collectors, pneumatic drills or the sound of jazz.
Machine overload. Not a moment for introspection or reflection. A world where machines, not humans, dominate.
The focus of the play is Helen (Emily Berrington), a young rather fragile woman who never seems able to find happiness in any aspect of her life. At work she is tardy and the focus of the boss’s attentions (George Jones, played by Jonathan Livingstone). It ends up in marriage and the birth of a daughter she has no interest in because it reminds her of the overbearing husband she has ended up with. A marriage made in the hell of New York, and a deeply unsatisfactory one at that.
Her mother (Denise Black) prattles on at a right rate of knots, repeatedly accusing her daughter of being crazy. As it turns out, she is pretty shrewd even though a single potato for dinner seems cruel. Surely, Helen’s earnings would result in a little finer fare.
Helen then meets Richard Roe (Dwane Walcott) in a bar with her friend from work (the ebullient telephonist, played by Kirsty Rider). He is a bit of a diamond rogue who has previous, having killed men in self-defence. He is a Casanova and the result is an intimate connection – it is the only time in her life that Helen has been happy. It is as if the shackles have been released and the true Helen has emerged. At last, she has found someone who floats her boat. Sadly, he sails away as Casanovas do but not before giving her a lily planted in a bowl of stones.
It is this instrument that ultimately proves Helen’s downfall – and that of her husband – as she is charged with his murder, a crime we do not see. Casanova may have merrily sewn his oats with Helen but when push comes to shove, he is quite happy to provide the information that will condemn her to execution by electric chair. Helen goes to her death as unhappy as ever. ‘Father, why was I born?’ she asks the priest just before her journey to the chair. Telling.
Machinal is a super production with brilliant set design by Miriam Buether – and rapid fire set changes which ensure the play’s heart never stops beating. Cleverly, a tilted mirror allows the audience to see Helen’s tumultuous life in reflection.
Berrington is brilliant as Helen with great support given by Black and Walcott. Rider’s receptionist is a riot, especially in episode one when she spends more time on the phone arranging her personal life than on office matters. Blethering par excellence.
But the real star of Machinal is Treadwell whose script depersonalises everyone – with Helen referred to throughout as Young Woman and Roe as First Man.
This is a play as dehumanising as George Orwell’s book 1984 – and one as relevant in 2018 as it was in New York, 1928. A classic
Machinal runs until July 21
Title image by Johan Persson