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Stuart King

Review: MACHINAL at the Almeida Theatre

Machinal - Almeida Theatre Machinal - Almeida Theatre Sophie Treadwell's episodic, expressionist drama MACHINAL, dates from 1928, but has an inner strength and freshness which belies its years.

The piece currently playing at The Almeida, depicts a dystopian and mechanised New York society, in which a young female stenographer (Emily Berrington) experiences mental difficulties in subordinating herself to the dominance of men and in particular, submitting to a marriage she does not want with a boss who makes her skin crawl. Her dependent, passive-aggressive mother (a truly marvellous turn from Denise Black) offers impatient criticism and self-serving encouragement by turns. Everyone speaks, but nobody really listens. The dialogue is fast and often overlapping, which only adds to the sense of frustration and mental anguish.

Largely based on the sensational courtroom drama in which an American housewife Ruth Snyder was tried and finally executed for the murder of her husband, the piece will resonate with audiences today and exudes a powerful undercurrent of disconcerting themes. As a man, this reviewer felt embarrassed and ashamed that so little progress has been made in the treatment of women in the intervening 90 years.

Natalie Abrahami directs the nine jarring scenes given one word titles like Matrimony and Maternity which are projected onto the horizontally closing screens in Miriam Buether’s beautifully mirrored and inventively realised set. Two scenes in particular stood out: the office in which the young woman arrives late, is a hive of uniform desks, attended by chatty co-workers who have been rhythmically choreographed to shuffle papers and tap tap tap at their antiquated machines. Arthur Pita's input in realising the stylised movement has blended terrifically with Ben and Max Reignham's mechanical and industrialised sound design. In another scene in which three dimly-lit tables are occupied by awkward couples in a speakeasy, the subdued lighting underpins the unsavoury exchanges of a gay older man attempting to seduce a student with Amontillado, a young woman being pressured by her lover into accepting that an abortion will serve everyone's best interests and our stenographer who ends up with a handsome philanderer (Dwane Walcott) after their double date with another couple disintegrates. His impactful charm is such a revelation to her that it triggers her decision to do away with her husband, the father of her daughter with whom she has always experienced an emotional disconnect.

The play contains a couple of mixed period anomalies, which whilst deliberately intended to infer the timelessness of the issues raised, weren't entirely successful. But on the whole this is a strong and thought provoking production well worth a visit to N1.