FringeReview UK 2018
Natalie Abrahami’s Almeida revival of Sophie Treadwell’s masterpiece Machinal features Miriam Buether’s closed set acts like a guillotine across a period from the 1920s to now. Alex Lowde’s costumes move along the same axis. Jack Knowles’ lighting plays darkly on the interiors. Ben and Max Ringham’s ominously thwunky machine-like soundscape reinforce it. Till July 21st.
Sophie Treadwell’s name has been so airbrushed she sounds contemporary. And she resoundingly is in Natalie Abrahami’s triumphant Almeida revival of her masterpiece Machinal. Though Machinal caused a sensation on Broadway in 1928, after Treadwell’s seventh play about immigrants and xenophobia was panned (bad timing: 1941), she retired from large-scale drama, retreating to novels and journalism, written out of American dramatic history. She died in 1970, just short of eighty-five.
Machinal prefigures this airbrushing, albeit differently in just ninety minutes. The lack of a woman’s identity drives the Young Woman protagonist, not to distraction but destruction. Machinal’s French title makes the machine-age sound sleek and critiqued at the same time. A young stenographer’s hit on by her boss, who makes her flesh ‘curl’ when he touches her in full view of the other eight typists – the nine typing stations prefigure the nine scenes of actions across the play. Not till the ominous eighth of nine guillotined scenes is she given a name, Helen, not in welcome circumstances. Nine scenes here is like the stages of giving birth to an abortive life.
Miriam Buether’s closed-in set sleeks like a guillotine too. Laterally shutting black screens each lipped with a neon strip meet and part to introduce scenes, words briefly projected. And Jack Knowles’ lighting plays darkly on the interiors. It’s a striking conflation of oppressive vastness. Each interior opens at an angled mirror doubling the stage action.
We start in a very 1920s typing pool, a mechanistic engine room. But each stage enclose differently. There’s a bleak 1930s cold water flat in dirty white and grimy sage green, with stove, chair, table and importantly radio. Then a horrific pink/orange 1950s bridal suite; a mid-century starched maternity ward, replete with drilling sounds to extend ‘the largest maternity unit in the world’ reducing the woman to a hatchery incubus. Then orange lava-lamps casting shadows in a brownish 1960s Speakeasy (so removed from Prohibition) and after a more generically shadowed ‘70s bedroom in briefly slinky yellow silk sheets is liberating because it’s in shadow.
We return to glare in a 1980s lounge with bleached white cotton three-piece and eventually 1990s courtroom (Nirvana’s briefly cued in Ben and Max Ringham’s ominously thwunky machine-like soundscape). The last room of all’s contemporary or even futuristic. I’m reminded of John Schlesinger’s Julius Caesar when each scene moves forward in history. The point’s obvious but subtly made.
Alex Lowde’s costumes move along the same axis, with the Young Woman starting in drab office off-white 1920s garb moving through pink – her fawn and pink slacks in the seventh Episode very 1970s-80s but liberating her no further. She ends in a blood-orange boiler suite redolent of The Handmaid’s Tale as much as what it in fact signifies.
Emily Berrington‘s marvellous continual flinch from circumstances is embodied in the way Treadwell suggests options then dismisses them. Kirsty Rider’s winningly worldly colleague, a smart-talking Telephone Girl shows one way out, outraged for her. But the protagonist is specifically sensitive, without the brassiness to be sacked. Jones admires her delicate hands Berrigan extends them like something out of Dürer across the desk, the kitchen table. Her sensitivity’s her trap.
Jonathan Livingstone’s George H Jones is believable precisely because his power’s withheld: he’s not an obvious monster but every move is repellent; the banality of patriarchy lies in this not-quite-evil monster who generates it. Oblivious to his chosen one’s humanity let alone individuality, his bluff blankness is what women still face. ‘I want profits’ he says before he first touches the Young Woman. The fact he doesn’t grope her is because it’s all in the threat.
Helen – as she becomes only in the penultimate Episode – gasps a first monologue, breathless against ‘the purgatory of noise’, asthmatic jerks and snatched short phrases: ‘I want rest – no rest – earn – got to rest – married – earn- no – yes’… They’re only slightly ameliorated later in more flowing, muted sentences; but the return of ‘somebody’ in her last words in the first Episode foretell her very last.
It’s a tour de force of the way expression shifts under pressure, and Treadwell’s virtuoso grasp of psychological shifts as well as an ear for snapped-off dialogues in the virtuoso first Episode which like the eighth has nearly all the thirteen-strong cast bouncing of each other. First it’s organum, with parallels, then polyphony, then cacophonous screeches. Beckett, Pinter, Mamet; as many no recognize, Treadwell was there first.
Helen’s Mother is no help. Denise Black’s manipulative dependant and hearth-heartless parent manages to accent her way to brutality through wheedling. She impels Helen to accept marriage, reluctant child-bearing of a daughter who’ll face a more privileged version of her oppression. again it’s Treadwell’s masterly way of suffocating the protagonist who can barely get a word in is telling: when she does in emphatic gasps her blunt refusals backfire.
There’s and sudden relief through the fifth and sixth scenes with a Speakeasy with maneouvering infidelity (Augustina Seymour another confident comfortable young woman who accepts perks with paternalism and pushy lover Demetri Goritsas); and ‘Intimate’ when Berrington palpably comes alive (‘volupté’ is one stage direction), abandonment as her lover (a slinky Dwane Walcott) returns to South America, and the action making the Helen’s name resound through America.
Multi-roling here also manages the bonus of claustrophobia, as if nearly everyone is either a mechanistic cog: persecutor, prosecutor, or enforced witness to judging Berrington’s Young Woman/Helen for trying to as Treadwell puts it ‘win free’ back to her brief happiness.
Thus the adulterous Seymour returns as Reporter, her erstwhile lover having been an Adding Clerk now as Prosecutor; Andrew Lewis in a series of authoritarian roles starting with Doctor and darkening; insinuating Warhol-like seducer John Mackay as defence and Alan Morrissey and Khali Best in roles where they’re being either put upon or oppressed like Berrington’s character. Nathalie Armin’s Stenographer and Nurse show what the protagonist’s meant to become, if not her Mother. Mackay and Best though do enact one of the first gay seductions of the modern theatre – another Treadwell first.
It is though Berrington’s Helen – finally growing that name for the wrong reasons – who dominates by her piercing attention to her verbal and palpable prison through the hubbub of this remarkable production. Filleting a tight shallow stage but mirroring it, multiplies oppression to infinity.
Parallels to Helen can be found but faintly in O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape where the male is exposed to mechanical ritual; (a ship’s engine room) and animalistic reduction; The Emperor Jones, and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine. Machinal’s an expressionist drama at the end of that vogue. But by marrying American naturalism to it, Treadwell created a hybrid that could have kept her name shining had she not immediately diversified back to a naturalistic comedy of manners, baffling critics. Treadwell’s next expressionist-inspired work For Saxophone was never staged. Only when we see the best of her other thirty-eight plays will Machinal’s lonely pinnacle be rightly augmented. This triumphant revival by the Almeida could signal the start. You must see this.