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When journalist-suffragette-playwright Sophie Treadwell's Machinal premiered in 1928, it struck reviewer Brooks Atkinson (who reviewed it twice) as “illuminating, measured drama such as we are not likely to see again.” He came perilously close to being right. Despite an increasing interest in academic circles and a Public Theater airing in 1990, British director Lyndsey Turner's upcoming Roundabout production is its first Broadway revival in 84 years.
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Treadwell's ripped-from-the-headlines drama drew on the real case of Ruth Snyder, the first woman killed in New York's electric chair, but formally it breathes weirder, more timeless fumes. Treadwell's pseudofable vibrates between domestic realism and expressionism, and her dark portrait of a silenced and homicidal woman can feel as neurotically contagious as Dostoyevsky's work. Stage and screen star Rebecca Hall takes on the central role of the cipherlike Helen, a woman crushed fine by society's millstones, but when Hall spoke with Time Out, she seemed to be holding up relatively well.
How did you settle on Machinal as your Broadway debut?
Director Lyndsey Tuner took me out for a cup of tea and proposed it! From that first meeting, we knew we had similar feelings about work we wanted to see in the world—if that isn't too grand and pretentious a statement. [Chuckles] When I read it, I was struck by how arresting it was on the page, how it made me feel like I was strangling on some level. And I was shocked that it had been relegated to being a footnote instead of being right at the center of American theater; the writing is so evocative, so visceral. Formally, it's a direct path to Beckett and more—I think it's absolutely relevant. It dares to make people ask: Are we living our lives the way we want to live them, or are we living according to a system we're not even aware of?
Your character is almost anonymous—Treadwell doesn't even reveal her name in the text until very close to the end. Was it difficult to efface yourself that totally?
It has been quite suffocating. I'm generally quite good at compartmentalizing…but the thing has its own tempo, and when I rehearse it, it's very hard to shake. I come out of it so fucking wired all the time! It's like being pummeled by a meat tenderizer for an hour and a half. There's something so final about a society's capacity to deform—in the 1920s, it was that there were very few choices for women, but we're not free either. There are repressing and inhibiting elements now that we aren't even aware of, yet we enter into them because that's how we're told to operate.
A lot of people keep asking me…why play such a passive character? What's interesting about that? And it's incredibly interesting. She's a highly internalized character, and yet you can't disappear into that because then you aren't expressing it. You must externalize her introversion; you must operate in a world that ignores her and makes her disappear—and yet allow her to be highly visible for an audience. Your ego can feel very puffed out when you're playing someone heroic and funny; that has its rewards. Machinal is rewarding in a different way, because you're expressing something difficult to understand that we overlook in life.
Practically speaking, how are you grappling with these enormous social issues?
Our director—Lyndsey is really rather inspired—works a great deal with new playwrights, and she says that writers never write to an ism. We must work first from the truth in the text and then go bolder from there. When people hallucinate, she says, when life becomes distorted, the hallucinations are always rooted in reality. When you go mad, you don't see a giant Day-Glo green spider, you start to think that people look slightly odd. So we're assuming that everything comes from truth. We've got a composer, Matthew Herbert, who does some quite bold and political music in England. He makes music from things he takes from life, and he asks us to listen to them differently. We've very much set it in the 1920s, but it's a ’20s that has been distorted; there's a pulse to it that's arresting and confronting and, I wager, might be a bit disturbing, actually. It's also very, very loud. When you pitch the fact that it's written in the ’20s, audiences expect something stuffy and old-fashioned. They're in for the shock of their life.
Machinal is at the American Airlines Theatre through March 2. Click here for tickets.