Machinal at the Almeida Theatre
Machinal is a migraine. Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play – inspired by the trial and execution of Ruth Snyder, and a nonagenarian in number alone – has been given a buzzing, brain-squeezing revival by Natalie Abrahami, the latest in the Almeida’s outstanding 2018 programme.
The director has managed to produce an opening scene that acts as a microcosm for the expressionist classic that follows. A claustrophobic city commute finds a young woman (Emily Berrington) crushed between the jostling bodies of the men around her, the noise cacophonous, the darkness consuming. Though the space may open up slightly as the drama’s episodes progress – work to marriage, motherhood to murder – that sense of suffocation never leaves.
Though Abrahami is careful not to labour the piece’s grim relevance, neither is it ignored. The director gradually updates the setting of each episode, so that by the curtain call we’ve gone from a 1920s typist pool in New York to an OJ Simpson-esque “trial of the century”, all the way to modern day. Not that it’s entirely necessary; Treadwell’s text is a ticking timebomb constructed from the persistent, low-level pressure that traps women in a life they don’t want to live, even today.
Perhaps the production’s best strength is to make the subtle overt. That may sound like a criticism. But here it translates to a heightening of the normally unnoticed: every unwelcome touch, every overbearing man droning on and on, every push to move in a certain direction. It’s the inner unhappiness and tension of a young woman writ large.
Looming over the stage like a portal to another – or even our own – world, Miriam Buether’s design is dominated by a ceiling mirror. There’s an element of Lynchian voyeurism to the reflection; a God’s view of history; even the predetermined movements of The Sims’ avatars. It’s one of the most striking elements of a visually stunning production, and a constant reminder of the hidden side to scenes of “normal” domesticity. This is paired with an insistent soundscape by Ben and Max Ringham, the relentless headache of the city dousing the stage.
Not everything works. The cast hasn’t always got the best handle on the journalistic rhythms of Treadwell’s text. And there are a couple of scenes in the middle that sap the exquisite intensity created by the opening. But, by the end, when the audience is made implicit in the whisperings of a ghoulish peanut gallery, these minor quibbles are drowned out by the sheer style and sharpness of the thing.
Photo: Johan Persson
Machinal is at the Almeida Theatre from 4th June until 21st July 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.