‘What a thing it is to be a woman, what you must submit to!’
American journalist Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 work ‘Machinal’ remains pretty extraordinary stuff, a clanking, rhythmic portrait of a woman named Helen Jones (dehumanised to Young Woman in the terse credits). She is pushed and pulled and moulded and crushed and finally snapped by the merciless industrialised conveyor belt of society.
Loosely based upon the real life case of murderer Ruth Snyder, ‘Machinal’ follows Helen (Emily Berrington) from nervy disillusionment as a young New York stenographer, right up to her execution for the murder of her unfeeling, boorish husband Jones (Jonathan Livingstone).
Abetted by designer Miriam Buether and team, director Natalie Abrahami crafts a gaspingly claustrophobic series of vignettes. Twitching to Arthur Pita’s discretely pummeling choreography, the cast are hemmed in by a low, sloped, mirrored ceiling, with retina-searing bars of lights marking the frequent scene changes. It is intensely atmospheric.
Treadwell’s play is pretty remarkable. Some expressionist playwrighting has dated into self-indulgence but her spare, percussive language frequently feels like it could have been written yesterday. The opening couple of scenes, where Helen’s colleagues exchange chat with a mindless precision that echoes the typewriters they hammer, is just dazzlingly evocative stuff.
As the piece wears on, its hard edged, clearly articulated feminism impresses the most. Decades before the Second Wave, Treadwell’s articulation of the raw deal women receive within the apparatus of society is startling. If a play like this could be a Broadway hit in the ’20s – starring Clark Gable, no less – it is fairly depressing how little has been done about any of this stuff.
Berrington is best known as one of the android protagonists of TV’s ‘Humans’. Here she’s the play’s only real jolt of actual humanity, everyone else is really just a cog in the societal engine. She does a good job. Her small, pale, porcelain frame is constantly oppressed by the gloom and bodies around her. Speaking in a noivous Brooklyn accent, she is brittle, bright and painfully on edge. We feel acutely for her as she timidly follows the path laid out for her, marrying one man, having an affair with another, then eventually snapping.
Abrahami’s production is panic-attack intense, rumbling with the mania of urban living. It also has one very noticeable directorial flourish: each scene is styled a decade or so on from the last one, meaning it begins around the time of the play’s writing and ends up in the present. It’s an interesting idea that’s presumably meant to underscore how little has changed. That feels a shade gratuitous – we’d get it anyway, I’d say – but at the same time there’s something pleasingly surreal about the show’s mounting historical anachronisms. It’s an unsubtle idea, but it’s done relatively discreetly, and the overt nowness of the final scenes feels pointed, political and universal. We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death.