Almeida Theatre, London ****
Rupert Goold’s tenure hardly puts a foot wrong these days.
True I’ve missed a couple of events the past few months – including Ella Hickson’s The Writer which divided everyone apparently. But here’s another cracker from the Goold stable. And nobody could accuse Goold of ignoring 50% of the population in his choices. After Mike Bartlett’s Albion last year with its central female protagonist, and Hickson’s feminist oriented writer, here is Natalie Abrahami’s terrific revival of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 humdinger of a `masterpiece’ (is there another word?!). Truly, a Handmaiden’s Tale before its time, Treadwell, prolific – she wrote 39 plays, many unpublished and unproduced by the time she died in 1970 – was, writes Tim Bano in his informative programme note, perhaps `unlucky’, in her timing.
Certainly Treadwell is best known here for Machinal, a savage indictment of modernist, mechanical and fundamentally, patriarchal society.
When Stephen Daldry directed it at the NT, the emphasis was very much on the play’s mechanistic aspects which given the NT’s technical resources underlined the play’s expressionism through monumentalism as was also the case many years ago with Peter Stein’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape – a condemnation that exploited its harshness through ultra-realism.
Treadwell’s Machinal is roughly of the same vintage as O’Neill. But in the small rotunda, a former temperance hall, that is the Almeida, Abrahami makes a virtue out of necessity. Hers is a compact, speedy production no less viscerally kinetic in its own fashion.
Like a series of snapshots or camera shutter clips, each short scene – or `episode’ – is divided by shimmering white day-glo bars between ascending and descending walls. Self-reflecting mirrors at the back of the stage enlarge the downstage action as if to add a split-vision focus.
But most of all, Abrahami’s production is a simulacrum for our age containing in Emily Berrington’s fraught heroine a symbol of female entrapment, an echo of some of the themes from The Handmaid’s tale. For her heroine, the conventions of being a woman, in admittedly 1920s America, is pure hell – forced to marry to escape her home, then give unwilling birth, forced, she feels, to constantly `submit’.
Her cry of `I will not submit’, even as ultimately she undergoes the final humiliation, echoes down the years. And even if Treadwell overeggs her heroine’s emotional state and notwithstanding a woman’s life in western society contains many more freedoms than Treadwell experienced, still the same yearning to be free in emotional, psychological and social terms carries no less weight in 2018.
In the most tender scene, beautifully played by Berrington and Dwane Walcott as a free spirited fellow drinker in a bar, for a moment our heroine does achieve a sweet intimacy.
But it is short-lived. And looking and sounding like an African-American version of Trump (interestingly both husband and lover bear likenesses, not just in the colour of skin), Jonathan Livingstone’s husband imposes his will. Whilst showing he really isn’t that `bad’ a man, just the epitome of a go-getter with an over-sized ego (and our heroine’s boss), his acme of achievement – going to Switzerland to buy a Swiss watch – speaks for itself.
With its rapid-fire, terse exchanges, Treadwell’s dialogue evokes her American male contemporaries such as Dashiel Hammett and O’Neill. But her focus is entirely different and Abrahami and her splendid ensemble make sure that Treadwell’s feminist cri de coeur stays resolutely focussed on the personal rather than mechanistic.
Once again Miriam Buether, with Jack Knowles’s ace lighting, produces an extraordinary series of instant atmospheric scene change encapsulating the tragic journey of a young woman whose sense of being ground down by society mirrors Woyzeck, if from an entirely different perspective. For both, the frustrations finally explode into violence.
Abrahami has done Treadwell proud. A great, absorbing revival. Wouldn’t it be nice to see other Treadwell plays given a run?!
by Sophie Treadwell
Stenographer/Nurse/Matron: Nathalie Armin
Young Woman: Emily Berrington
Filing Clerk/Boy at Table/Bailiff: Khali Best
Mother: Denise Black
Adding Clerk/Man at Table/Prosecution: Demetri Goritsas
Doctor/Judge/Priest: Andrew Lewis
Jones: Jonathan Livingstone
Man at Table/Defense/Barber: John Mackay
Second Man/Jailer: Alan Morrissey
Telephone Girl: Kirsty Rider
Woman at Table/Court Reporter: Augustina Seymour
First Man: Dwane Walcott
Daughter: Tidankay Abiba-Doukoure, Ta’lia Harvey, Poppy O’Mahony-Dawe
Other roles played by cast.
Direction: Natalie Abrahami
Set Design: Miriam Buether
Costume: Alex Lowde
Choreography: Arthur Pita
Lighting: Jack Knowles
Sound and Composition: Ben and Max Ringham
Casting: Julia Horan
Costume Supervisor: Jemima Penny
Prop Supervisor: Sharon Foley
Video: Robin Fisher
Voice and Dialect Coach: Emma Woodvine
Fight Director: Jonathan Holby
Resident Director: Joseph Winters
Associate Lighting Designer: Jamie Platt
Design Assistant: Joana Dias
Assistant Costume Supervisor: Emma Keaveney Roys
First perf of this revival of Machinal at Almeida Theatre, London, June 4, 2018; runs to July 21, 2018
Review published on this site, June 14, 2018