Machinal, Almeida Theatre – Review

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Directed by Natalie Abrahami, Machinal is one of those ‘rediscoveries’ that reflects the zeitgeist. Written in 1928 by Sophie Treadwell – eight years after all women in the US were allowed to vote – Machinal doesn’t take the plight of women for granted. While aspects of the play are indicative of when it was first written, other facets ask questions of a timeless nature regarding what women ‘should’ expect in the arenas of work, home and relationships. In Treadwell’s original play, the protagonist doesn’t have a name, but in this production, Emily Berrington’s protagonist has been given the name of Helen.

The morning commute. Bodies crushed against each other. Helen finds herself asphyxiating. The office – the stenographers are hard at work, talking about Helen being late for consecutive days in a row. The boss George G Jones makes his rounds. “Where’s Helen..?” But rather than face the ire of her boss, Helen receives special attention from her boss, who is unusually patient with her…

MACHINAL
Jonathan Livingstone and Emily Berrington / All photos © Johan Persson

As a character, Helen could arguably be said to be ‘delicate’, someone who finds the proximity of people during her commute particularly arduous. It is as a woman though, that Helen’s anxiety is most keenly felt. Her unease at the prospect of time alone with her boss feels her with dread, automatically bringing to mind the experiences of the #MeToo movement.

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Instead of finding solace or at least perspective from her own mother (Denise Black), Helen finds her lack of sensitivity to what she’s feeling exasperating – mother and daughter tethered together not out of love, but out of economic necessity. With no father in the picture, the burden of being the ‘breadwinner’ falls squarely on Helen. Her mother is initially alarmed by Helen’s rhetorical talk of marriage, for fear of being left by herself, but the prospect of Helen’s wealthy boss being her son-in-law changes her tune. Whatever romantic notions the mother might have had earlier in life, they have all but evaporated with the harsh realities of life. Yet if Helen felt unhappy before, this pales into insignificance with how she feels after she gets married…

In terms of staging, Miriam Buether’s set design utilises a mirrored ceiling that’s held at 45 degrees above the actors. With parts of stage left and right sectioned off as well, a non-verbal sense of containment is established. The reflections it creates also allow Helen to look ‘outside herself’ at her own life, often disliking what she sees. The use of the angled, mirrored ceiling is also a motif often present in productions of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis – a representation of the state of mind. Certainly as the play progresses, the ‘primal scream’ that is everpresent in Helen’s mind is more pronounced at certain junctures, particularly when she thinks there’s ‘no way out’…

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Helen’s vehement, adverse feelings towards motherhood and being touched by men are powerful in that they are one of the last ‘taboos’. Some quarters would no doubt put this down to postpartum depression and the ‘aversion’ to men a simple matter of sexual preference. But through a brief affair that occurs – the only occasion where Helen is in complete control of what she wants or deriving any pleasure – we see that that sex, intimacy and ‘coupledom’ aren’t a problem for her. It’s having these things foisted upon oneself without choice or feelings for her ‘partner’.

But having had a taste of what her life could be like, should be like, ‘living’… Helen can’t return to her marriage as if nothing has happened. To borrow a phrase from The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying…” One way or another, something has to change…

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Machinal with its juxtaposition of reflections with intense light and darkness is visually striking, though beneath the sheen of Helen’s life, it is one bereft of ‘life’. Interestingly, the only time when the stage takes a ‘warm glow’ is when Helen briefly ventures out of her own world.

While Helen’s mother would have been ‘satisfied’ with the domestic stability that Helen has acquired, it’s not enough for her. Inspired by the real-life case of Ruth Snyder, Treadwell’s protagonist was never going to live in a state of bliss. If we compare Helen to other women in history or fiction who endured hardships and/or been wronged – the suffragettes, victims in war-torn regions, etc – she hasn’t experenced the true depths of heartache and suffering that women can experience. While we fathom she is undoubtedly unhappy, ‘Helen’ compared to other female protagonists isn’t as empathetic towards others, or in turn engendering as much empathy from the audience.

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Be that as it may, the questions Helen ask, for which she receives no answers – “Is this my life?” “Why didn’t anyone tell me that what childbirth and motherhood is really like? – will forever be asked. However, there is a big difference about talking such matters in private and being a natural topic for exploration in mainstream plays. In this respect, Machinal takes no prisoners.

© Michael Davis 2018

three-half-stars

Machinal runs at the Almeida Theatre until 21st July.

https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/machinal/4-jun-2018-21-jul-2018

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