BWW Review: MACHINAL, Almeida Theatre
Machinal, written by Sophie Treadwell, is based on the sensational 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder, a housewife who murdered her husband. It is a play largely about a woman attempting to find her own agency, with little success, despite the restraints of being a wife and mother. While the Almeida production boasts a wonderful set and the modern relevancy is clear, it ultimately falls short of its source material.
This play appeared on Broadway for the first time in the year following the trial. Natalie Abrahami's production takes it from its original 1920s setting and also breaks it into nine vignettes, labelled as "episodes" by projections.
The transitions between scenes are at times jarring. They're marked by screens meeting each other in the middle with a bright light and then a projection titling the next 'episode'. These interludes work at first, but become annoying over time, and the light is painfully blinding.
The clipped repetitive language works in some scenes, but feels exhausting in others. It's at its best in the office scene at the beginning of the play, in which everyone talking over each other and using the same phrases helps build a claustrophobic, caged environment for the woman to enter into.
Emily Berrington is impressive in the lead role - the character based on Snyder, but billed as 'Young Woman'. However, sometimes her franticness seems to result in the loss of the character's relatability, as she often seems vacant and even unhinged. That said, the intensity with which she delivers her monologues is striking.
Jonathan Livingstone is appropriately self-absorbed and even a bit slimy in the role of the husband, while Dwane Walcott lends the First Man, who she has an affair with, a cool charm. The Mother, played by Denise Black, is overwhelming enough in her nagging to make the audience understand why the woman might marry someone just to get away from her.
One of my favourite ensemble performances comes from Kirsty Rider as the Telephone Girl in the office who befriends the woman, as she's charming in a way reminiscent of old Hollywood films.
The set design is the best part of the production, from the interesting subway car effect at the beginning to the mirror at the back of the stage. A mirror stretches across the entire back of the stage, angled to give the audience a view of the stage from above. It's especially effective in the scenes with beds; there's something downright chilling about seeing the pink bed of the honeymoon suite reflected in it.
However, the play loses something by not being grounded in a particular era. With the clothing and sets at the beginning of the play, it appears to be set sometime between the 1930s and 1950s, but later scenes included a Gameboy and a modern telephone. I wish that they had set the play in the 1920s as it was originally written, or at least made a more obvious choice as to what time it's meant to take place in, as I found it confusing and less impactful.
Machinal does make a statement about how women are trapped by the society that they live in and restricted by the roles of wife and mother. However, this production at times simply feels chaotic rather than intense, despite solid performances from the cast and an inventive set. It lacks the emotional punch needed to be a truly great production of the piece.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson