Interview: 'It's a Real Behemoth of a Role: Actor Rosie Sheehy on Capital Punishment, Misogyny and Fatigue in Sophie Treadwell's MACHINAL

'I remember being incredibly moved and blown away by this extraordinary piece of theatre that was written 100 years ago'

By: May. 02, 2024
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Interview: 'It's a Real Behemoth of a Role: Actor Rosie Sheehy on Capital Punishment, Misogyny and Fatigue in Sophie Treadwell's MACHINAL
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Machinal, a play by Sophie Treadwell, was written nearly a century ago, but it feels like a play that could have been written yesterday. Treadwell was inspired by the life of Ruth Snyder, an American woman who was executed in the electric chair for the murder of her husband. The show, an Expressionist work, has been adapted and revived many times since its original production in 1928. Currently, Machinal is playing at The Old Vic, directed by Richard Jones and starring Rosie Sheehy.

Recently, we had the chance to talk with Sheehy about taking on the role of Helen Jones, or “The Young Woman,” in Machinal. We discussed what compelled her to join this production, what it is like being a part of a work based on the real life of a woman and what she hopes audiences take away from the piece.

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

How did you first get involved in the theatre industry?

I was very lucky - I did the conventional route of going to drama school. And then, in a weird, full-circle moment, I had my first job at The Old Vic with Richard Jones, who directed The Hairy Ape, which was also an expressionist piece. So I graduated from drama school and then I had an audition through my agent, which I was very lucky to sign with in third year, and I met Richard Jones, who I'm working with now, many years later! [Laughs]

And what made you want to be a part of this production of Machinal?

Funnily enough, I saw a production of it at Guildhall. I was at a different drama school, RADA, and I went by myself on a theatre trip to see their third-year production of Machinal. And I was completely blown away! I went not knowing what I was going to see, and suddenly, there was this production of Machinal.

Nine actresses in the year shared her [Helen Jones’s] part - they each played her. I was about 20 years old, so a lot of it perhaps went over my head, but I remember being incredibly moved and blown away by this extraordinary piece of theatre that was written 100 years ago. And these nine actresses sharing her . . . I remember it now so vividly. It was one of those nights at the theatre where you come away and you think, “Oh, my goodness, what have I just seen?” So when Richard Jones rang me in 2023, he said, “Look, I'd like you to do this part, but do you know it? It's quite an obscure piece.” And I just went, “Oh my god, yes, I do! I really do.” So I was straight away, “I'm absolutely doing it!”

And for those unfamiliar with the work, can you tell us a bit about it and the role you play?

It's about everything. The themes in it are so vast! It's about misogyny, racism, oppression, mental health . . . It's about medical research and how poor it is in the field of women's health and women's issues. It's about narcissistic abuse, about emotional abuse, about poverty, about the electric chair, about capital punishment, about America, about capitalism, about the machine of life.

I say all that because they are really what it's about, but the plot is that we follow a young woman through nine episodes of her life. She's growing up six years, from the age of 23 to 29, and the phases of her life that she comes into contact with that she finds incredibly difficult for many reasons. And it's no spoiler that she then kills her husband and has to pay for it.

And because it is based on a true story, did you do much research before taking on the role?

Yeah, I did. Every night, we perform the last scene and it's an electric chair, which is still a punishment in some states in America, which blows my mind. But I have to remind myself, I'm on stage and I think “A: It’s a true story, B: It happened and C: It still happens today.” It's based on the real trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, who murdered her husband together. So I did lots of reading on that case, but our story veers off into a different realm.

Sophie Treadwell focuses more on the woman. So in the real case, they both plotted to kill him together whereas our story just focuses on her and it's a solo act - the lover isn't involved. He gives her the inspiration to do it, but he doesn't commit it himself. So it's very similar to a point, and then the story forks.

There was a point where I had to let that stuff go because I’m not playing Ruth Snyder. I'm playing Helen Jones, who's heavily based on her. From my research of Ruth Snyder, she was emotionally abused by her husband, had very little education, felt limited by not having any control over the finances of the relationship, or any control over any of it. I’m not saying it’s right - you absolutely shouldn’t murder, they should have just divorced. But it's asking a question of, “Well, why didn't she just divorce him? What was at play that made her mentally unwell?

And what has it been like bringing this role to the stage? 

It's a real behemoth of a role. Every day I'm checking in and making sure that I have the stamina to go as far as the play asks. It's so challenging but in the best way. I feel fatigued by the end of the week, but it’s a good fatigue. And when do parts like this come along? I feel like they're very rare. 

How do you keep yourself in a good mental state with such distressing subjects within the show?

We did the run originally in Bath, Theatre Royal Bath, and there was a point where I’d done so much reading on domestic abuse, emotional abuse, and narcissistic abuse as well. The husband in it is who plays, the CEO of the company, he's an on-paper, textbook narcissist. So I went down a whole rabbit hole of horrible, but very insightful, and great for any young woman to learn, about what behaviour is unacceptable and what a healthy relationship looks like. But there was a point where I had to go, “Rosie, you've done that work, now stop reading it.” I was reading brilliant passages like The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman - amazing. Victorian literature, but it's the same time period. And eventually, you go, “Stop that!” Because you have to trust that it's in your brain, so you don't need to revisit it every night, which is what I was doing. 

And now we're at The Old Vic and we have this amazing resource - I have a drama therapist, which I've never worked with before, but they have somebody on board who has been amazing. Very, confidence-building and reassuring. Therapists are incredible! And so I have that as well, which feels like a real luxury. I've always been like, “Oh, God, just take the costume off and get dressed and leave!” But it does take ten, fifteen minutes - they call it “de-roling.” There is something to be said for it. It's incredibly important to let it leave you.

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

How has it been performing to audiences at The Old Vic?

People are really shocked at the end! There's that last moment in the play and there's a pause before people know they can clap. People are going, “Oh, my God, that's it,” when she finally dies. It's been amazing. The response has been incredible. We've had standing ovations, which are incredible and overwhelming to me because there's a point in theatre where you meet the audience and the audience meets you. And I can feel that they don't want to applaud straightaway. They certainly don't want to jump to their feet straightaway, yet they do. So it's me as an actor going, “Are we applauding us as a company and creative team?” You kind of don't want it - you want to just honour her. You want to honour the story, the real woman, the fact that this abuse takes place in real life. It's strange. It feels incredible and really rewarding.

It's a beautiful design and incredible direction by Richard - he's a genius. They all are, the whole creative team. It's like watching a Wes Anderson film, like watching a graphic novel. But it's incredibly sad because it's real. It’s theatre to shock and to impress upon the audience that this is a reality.

Is it strange to be bringing this older work into modern times with it still being relevant, like how the electric chair is still being used in the United States?

Well, it's expressionism, so the writing is so direct. There’s a lot of repetition and there’s all those brilliantly stylised techniques - it's very theatrical. But it's incredibly humbling because it's very relatable. Every scene is relatable. She's such a brilliant writer because she nails the emotional alienation of the situation in every scene, and yet, we all as human beings are likely to experience that.

We all know what it's like to be claustrophobic on the Tube or to have somebody coughing or sneezing, especially after a pandemic. That kind of fear of, “Oh my god, get away!” And then we go into an office, and so many of us have done office jobs where there's gossiping. And as young women, it's incredibly relatable because I think we can all relate to unwanted male attention. And males to unwanted females - I'm not gendering it.

Then we move to a relationship with a mum and a daughter, full of anger and oppression, that horrible mother-and-daughter dynamic. It's so universal, to have a mother that nags and a daughter that wants to be independent. Then it jumps to our honeymoon, so then you're looking at marital rape, which still happens today. And then postnatal depression - it's natural, which people are frightened to admit, but postnatal depression is a natural thing that needs help and medical research. It's incredibly sad in the best way because you go, “Well, this was written 100 years ago, yet we're still trying to overcome these emotional obstacles.”

And what do you hope audiences take away from Machinal?

I feel like the main message is that your life belongs to you. It doesn't belong to anybody else. It belongs to you and it's incredibly precious. Especially if you're a young woman, don't allow anything or anyone to control you, to make you feel small, to abuse you or to trap you. When you're entering into a relationship, like a marriage, make sure it's right for you and make sure you have equal power in it. Don't give away your preciousness. You must treasure you. Don't let it go for nothing. You have to have self worth. You have to have incredible self-esteem to be a young woman.

And finally, how would you describe the show in one word? 


Machinal runs until 1 June 2024 at The Old Vic.


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