Machinal was first written in 1928 by Sophie Treadwell: a feminist and expressionist play inspired by the real-life case of convict Ruth Snyder- the first woman to be executed in the electric chair in New York.
90 years later, Natalie Abrahami revives this ever-relevant piece at the Almeida Theatre where it will be performing until the 21st July. Running at a mere 90 minutes, this piece glides by, keeping you hooked until the end.
“A strong, visceral production”
Machinal tells the story of a young woman Helen (played by Emily Berrington) who works in a low-level stenographer job. Trapped by the everyday mundanity of work and an unbearably controlling mother; Helen attempts to escape by marrying the Vice President of her company Mr. Jones (played by Jonathan Livingstone) a man she has no love or interest in – other than the financial stability he is able to provide. Forced by societal and internal pressures, Helen obediently follows the heteronormative life path displayed in front of her – marriage and children – only for this illusionary promise of salvation to be yet another cage. Only an illicit love affair finally revives and frees this woman for the first time but for Helen freedom comes at a costly price.
Natalie Abrahami’s revival is a strong, visceral production that will keep you engaged till the end. Miriam Buether’s impressive stage design is meticulously detailed yet rudimentary. The sloped mirrored wall on stage adds an additional dimension and depth to this play that allows for alternative ways of viewing the production and particularly in the intimate love scene between the young woman and the forbidden lover the design truly shone through.
The cast in this production was truly exceptional. Every cast member really gave a strong and brilliant performance, each member as strong as the other.
“A unique theatrical experience”
Emily Berrington as the anxiety-ridden young woman was meritorious but at times, she left me wanting more. When Berrington was performing a subdued level of anxiety her performance was lustrous. In her scenes with Jonathan Livingstone (Mr. J) particularly in their honeymoon, Berrington was able to have a truly visceral impact, making me gag and my toes curl with discomfort. Their relationship pulled and tugged at my emotions; Livingstone was able to make me pity his character as much as I did Berrington’s and at points, he made me really dislike Berrington’s character- a unique theatrical experience for me.
In contrast, in her scenes with her illicit lover (played by Dwane Walcott) Berrington was able to lure us with her charm and the excitement of finally meeting a man she loved. Walcott and Berrington had strong chemistry and I was hooked watching this love affair displayed in front of me. It was in the penultimate scene that I felt that Berrington let her self down in what had been a varied and strong performance.
The biggest let down for me was the ending of this piece which I found tame and to an extent, this was a disservice to the overall production. Natalie Abrahami’s decision to shield us from seeing Helen being electrocuted (apologies for the spoiler) robbed us of a truly impactful moment of the reality and atrocity of the death penalty. Undermining a key cog within this piece. Whilst visceral and uncomfortable in the beginning, the ending did not follow suit.
Machinal is a slick, strong production that will engage you through its laudable performance and design but beware; this production lacks guts.
Image: Johan Persson