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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Machinal
Almeida Theatre  Summer 2018

Sophie Treadwell's 1928 drama is a prime example of the American theatre's brief flirtation with Expressionism in the 1920s and an icon of American feminist drama. 

Natalie Abrahami's production hints at some of the play's strengths while being unable to paper over its weaknesses, leading to a strangely subdued and only partially satisfying experience. 

I make no apology for the plot spoilers to follow since the story is just a framework on which Treadwell hangs her psychological insights and emotional effects. The play follows a woman identified only as The Young Woman through a string of experiences that illustrate the limitations and trapped feelings of women in early-20th-century America. 

She's seen first in her inhumanly mechanical office job, overwhelmed by the inane chatter and physical presence of all her co-workers and by the unwelcome advances of her boss. Her unsympathetic mother refuses to hear her unhappiness and confusion as she decides to marry the boss just because there seems no other path open to her. 

Scenes of the honeymoon and the birth of a daughter show her feeling more and more trapped in a life she never actually chose, while a surprising episode of adultery gives her a hint of happiness and fulfilment she missed out on. When next seen she is on trial for the murder of her husband, and then awaiting execution. 

As that summary suggests, Treadwell is more interested in giving glimpses of isolated moments in the Woman's life than in a continuous and coherent story. 

Some of the gaps, as from her repugnance at her husband's touch to her enthusiastic and satisfying sex with the stranger, or from there to the trial, are enormous, and pose a challenge to the audience to keep up. 

The play operates on several levels, and where this production is most successful is in suggesting that we are witnessing a catalogue of all the oppressive experiences of 20th-century women, condensed into one omnibus character. 

A little less successful, though occasionally captured, is the nightmarish quality Treadwell reached for in employing Expressionist techniques, and here one senses director Abrahami and designer Miriam Buether choosing (unwisely, I think) to do less rather than more. 

The office scene is never the claustrophobic cacophony of bustle and noise it should be, the husband is never presented as the brutal monster the Young Woman senses, the trial scene lacks any hint of nightmare, and so on. 

Virtually the only concession director and designer make to Expressionism is a tilted mirror to the rear of the stage that offers a skewed alternative view of the action. 

The essence of Expressionism is for what we see to be a reflection of the character's experience of reality rather than objective reality itself. But by presenting much of the play as prosaically realistic, the revival makes the Young Woman seem inexplicably hysterical. 

Rather than seeing the word through her eyes, we can't help wondering what is wrong with her. This puts a burden on hard-working actress Emily Berrington that she doesn't seem to have been given much help in bearing. 

Similarly, the episodic structure of the play forces the actress to create a continuity of character that Treadwell didn't really give her, and Berrington leaves us with no sense of how the Woman could have gotten from repugnance at her husband's touch to enthusiastic coupling with her one-night stand, or from there, by way of the unseen murder, to the courtroom. 

That this is a problem of direction rather than the actress's limits is evident in some of the other characterisations. 

There is clearly a deliberate irony in having Jonathan Livingstone play the husband as an ordinary and amiable (if perhaps not especially sensitive) nice guy rather than a sexist or animalistic monster, and in having his characterisation and Dwane Walcott's as the lover very similar. 

But again we are seeing realities that conflict with the Woman's perceptions rather than reflecting them. And the result is to separate us from her rather than bring us into her experience. 

The play is worth seeing. The production does not so much get in its way as fail to support it sufficiently.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Machinal - Almeida Theatre 2018  
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