Interview with Lyndsey Turner, Director
Ted Sod: Why did you choose to direct Machinal?
Lyndsey Turner: I first read Machinal when I was at university: I was struck by the boldness of the writing, the way Treadwell follows, with brutal inexorable logic, the journey of an unremarkable woman through a series of encounters which lead her to commit a remarkable act. The play is a brilliant account of the impact of mechanization and industrialization on American society, as well a forensic and unflinching portrait of a young woman in crisis.
I've loved the play for years, so when the Roundabout approached me and asked whether I might be interested in making a new production of it, I pretty near fell off my chair. Machinal isn't Medea: it's not about a princess making a grand gesture in order to exact revenge, it's about an ordinary working woman. And as much as it concerns itself with love, death, birth, and identity, Treadwell's scenes are also full of the stuff of life: salesmen who dream of Swiss watches, a panic attack on the subway, the proper way to wash dishes. But it's also a play which demands a great deal of the actor playing Helen, which is why I was beyond thrilled when Rebecca Hall came on board. It takes a great deal of humanity, craft, and courage to play a character who isn't allowed to act on her own behalf, and Rebecca is one of the only actors of her generation with the creativity, precision, and insight to create that performance.
Rebecca Hall in rehearsal for Machinal. Photo by Jenny Anderson.
TS: What do you think the play is about?
LT: The play was written as a response to the death of Ruth Snyder, the first woman to be sentenced to the electric chair as a punishment for murdering her husband. Despite the fact that no cameras were permitted in the chamber where Snyder died, a journalist hid a device in his trousers and managed to take a picture moments after her death. The photograph made the front pages of newspapers around the country the next day. Treadwell was a journalist who had covered a number of high profile trials in which women were accused of murdering their husbands. I feel certain that the writer was interested not only in the circumstances that led to these murders, but also in the way these trials became media sensations. This image of a woman whose words, movements, clothes, sexual relationships and fitness to be a mother had come in for daily scrutiny throughout a court case which had lasted months, now sitting dead in an electric chair for all the world to see must have struck Treadwell as obscene. Even in death, Snyder was regarded as public property.
Treadwell had completed Machinal within four months of Synder's death. And although the play isn't concerned with telling the story of this now notorious murderess, its focus on the ways in which the increasing mechanization of the workplace, the stultifying domesticity of marriage, the ruthless expertise of the medical profession, and the impossibility of finding a place of peace or rest in an increasingly frenetic world provide a context in which a woman might be driven to take a violent and radical action in order to break free.
The play gives the lie to the image of the 1920s as a decade of unprecedented freedom: it's a savage indictment of a society whose pursuit of efficiency and prosperity leads to a woman becoming trapped in the very machines designed to liberate her.
TS: Do you feel audiences will see the play as contemporary or as a period piece and why?
LT: It's striking how contemporary the play still feels, despite the fact that it was written 85 years ago. The questions it raises about women in the workplace, our expectations of marriage and childbirth and the relationship between the justice system and the media seem as relevant now as they would have done then. I hope that audiences leave the production feeling not as if they've seen a period piece, but a new play. However, it's important to me that we retain the play's original setting: the action takes place over the course of five years, from 1923 to 1928. The scenes are underscored by sounds (a riveting machine, popular songs on a radio, telegraphic machines and a chorus of typewriters) which evoke a machine working at full speed. The year after the play was written, the Wall Street Crash decimated the economic system which had gathered such momentum over the previous decade. Attempting to reset the play in a later era would risk robbing Treadwell's writing of its specificity, but would beg more questions than it answered. The play has a huge amount to say about life in the early 20th century, but it also speaks to us across the decades in a way which I'm hoping audiences will be excited by.
TS: The play is often described as expressionistic. Do you believe that to be true, and if so, how will that be manifested in your production?
LT: Treadwell's play certainly uses techniques which are associated with Expressionism: flat, repetitive dialogue; abstracted sounds underscoring scenes; characters defined by their function rather than their back story or their psychology. No wonder Machinal is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine. However, Treadwell shifts the style of each scene according to the system she is trying to depict. The second scene in which Helen asks her mother whether or not she should marry George H. Jones isn't remotely expressionistic in style, nor is the central scene in which Helen finds a moment of intimacy with a man she meets in a speakeasy. We'll attempt to capture the rhythms of the writing and the impersonal facelessness of some of the play's encounters, but the chief goal of the production is to bring Machinal to life, rather than to "do expressionism". And I'm not sure that we go to the theatre to see a meticulously recreated -ism anyway!
TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What traits do you need? Will there be doubling?
LT: I'm new to the American acting community, but I've been struck by the talent, creativity, and professionalism of the actors I've met whilst I've been over here. Machinal is a big ensemble show with a huge amount of doubling. Between them, a company of 18 will work to bring to life a bustling court room, a hotel ballroom, a working hospital, and a busy office. I'm excited about working with a group of actors from a range of backgrounds who are united by a desire to bring this brilliant but rarely performed play to life. There's a streak of dark humor running through the play which requires actors with great timing, huge imagination; and a genuine love of ensemble work.
TS: How are you collaborating with your design team? How will the play manifest itself design-wise? Will there be original music?
LT: I'll be working with Es Devlin, a brilliant British designer who works across various media: from theatre to opera, pop concerts to the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. She and I have worked together before, and I hugely admire her ability to get to the core of what a play is about. Machinal seems to demand a bold visual statement, and so we've taken inspiration from the title given to the play when it was first performed in London, The Life Machine, (apparently British audiences couldn't be relied upon to pronounce the title Treadwell had given her work). We're creating a set which allows us to move fluidly between nine locations, but also allows us to stage the various ways in which Helen is processed by the life machine. I've asked the composerMatthew Herbert to create a score for the production: he specializes in making extraordinary music out of "found sounds", be they from the kitchen of a restaurant, a pig farm, or an operating theatre. It seems important that the soundscape of the play is derived from the machine noises which Treadwell writes into the stage directions.
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