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Machinal

  • Theatre, Drama
  • Old Vic, Waterloo
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Machinal, Old Vic, 2024
Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Sophie Treadwell’s impressionist masterpiece is turned into a pulverising rapture in Richard Jones’s astonishing production, starring Rosie Sheehy

In a wedge shaped set, bright yellow as bile, a machine does its work. 

In Richard Jones’s staggering revival of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist classic, our first glimpse of Rosie Sheehy’s Young Woman is the sight of her freaking out in a press of black-clad ’20s New Yorkers, her blue patterned dress frumpy next to their sharp, dark angles.

The story cuts to her office. To the strains of what sounds like a demonic metronome, her colleagues gossip about her, repetitive gibberish underscored by their bafflement that the Young Woman is late – why would anyone would want to miss any of this? 

Sheehy arrives and she’s not a timid wallflower, but earthy, speaking with a mile-wide Brooklyn accent. She lives with her elderly Irish mother, who is later delighted when her daughter reveals she has had a marriage proposal from her boring, unattractive, much older boss (Tim Frances). Her mum says she should marry him; an upset Young Woman screams like a wild animal; she marries him anyway.

Jones’s production is a sort of infernal anxiety machine, percussive and remorseless, each hallucinatory scene immaculately crafted with its own distinct mood. Although the tone of the story changes repeatedly, catharsis is banned here. Hyemi Shin’s retina-searing set is unforgettable, Benjamin Grant’s sound design skin-crawling unnerving, Adam Silverman’s lighting exquisitely unsettling, Sarah Fahie’s movement ravishingly creepy. 

Jones’s production is an infernal anxiety machine

As much installation as drama, the show’s clanking metallic rhythms envelop the Young Woman, but it begins to feel like we’re being put through a brutal industrial process too. In the scene where the Young Woman gratefully hooks up with a man she meets in a speakeasy, the entire room is plunged into darkness; at the climax, as she is put on trial for her husband’s murder, we are bathed in dazzling white light. In one sequence, bone shuddering bass drones sweep the auditorium. 

Sheehy is astonishing. There’s something almost Hogarthian about how each scene sees her nail a different aspect of alienation, from her opening panic attack on the subway to her excruciating honeymoon with Frances’s Husband, her time in hospital after the birth of a daughter (who is represented only by the pounding of a pneumatic drill), her pathetic gratefulness to the man she hooks up with. 

For the most part she seems like a grounded young woman increasingly aware of (and repulsed by) the meaningless of the society around her: she is bored of her job, exasperated with her mother, her skin crawls at her husband’s touch. Feral screams and full body convulsions rip through her as she becomes increasingly incapable of suppressing her disgust.

Jones’s hyper-stylized production is audacious from start to finish, but the scope of his ambitions becomes apparent at the end, when a caged Young Woman is put on trial. At the climax she becomes an almost Christ-like figure, her very existence a rebuke to a society for which her destruction has now become a collective endeavour: it is clear that everyone is against her. Religious imagery abounds: a solemn procession marching her to her end, a Barabbas-like prisoner caged next to her. 

It’s certainly a choice to push it this far, given the character is based upon real-life husband murderer Ruth Snyder. But Jones’s production feels like a logical conclusion of Treadwell’s intent, which was always to compassionately consider Snyder’s reasons for snapping. 

Yes, it is not exactly revelatory in 2024 to observe that capitalism is a machine that crushes the little guy. But in the apocalyptic ecstasy of this productions’s final moments, the story feels less cliched than sacred, mythological, foundational – a tale of one woman standing up to the system turned into a pulverising rapture.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Details

Address:
Old Vic
103 The Cut
Waterloo Rd
London
SE1 8NB
Contact:
View Website
Transport:
Tube: Waterloo; Rail: Waterloo
Price:
£10-£70. Runs 1hr 45min (no interval)

Dates and times

19:30Old Vic £10-£70. Runs 1hr 45min (no interval)
19:30Old Vic £10-£70. Runs 1hr 45min (no interval)
19:30Old Vic £10-£70. Runs 1hr 45min (no interval)
19:30Old Vic £10-£70. Runs 1hr 45min (no interval)
19:30Old Vic £10-£70. Runs 1hr 45min (no interval)
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