Fascinating Feminist Drama Machinal Needs No Update

Machinal, Almeida Theatre ★★★☆☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 25 months ago

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Fascinating Feminist Drama Machinal Needs No Update Machinal, Almeida Theatre 3
Photo: Johan Persson

American writer Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist feminist drama Machinal is a fascinating work. Loosely inspired by the real-life executed murderer Ruth Snyder, it portrays in nine short ‘episodes’ the downward spiral of A Young Woman who feels trapped in the patriarchal urban jungle of New York City.

To escape from her mechanical job as a stenographer and her claustrophobic life at home with her overbearing mother, she marries her chauvinist boss despite being physically repelled by him, and has a daughter with whom she doesn’t bond. She realises she has exchanged one form of imprisonment for another, and though taking a lover seems to offer a brief moment of freedom, there seems to be only one way out.

Photo: Johan Persson

With its hard-hitting theme of female subjugation in a machine age and daringly stylised form (including staccato dialogue and stream-of-consciousness monologues), Machinal is the play that revived the reputation of the forgotten Treadwell in recent years. It’s a powerful indictment of modern dehumanising forces.

However, director Natalie Abrahami’s decision to progressively move the action forward to the present day feels forced — of course there is still gender inequality now, but the idea that the protagonist should have to resort to such extreme measures in an attempt to free herself doesn’t ring true. The result is that Emily Berrington’s Young Woman comes across more as a mentally unbalanced individual than a victim of her environment.

Photo: Johan Persson

Miriam Buether’s striking set design, with a mirrored ceiling giving us a split perspective, moves swiftly from crowded subway train to regimented office desks and cramped tenement flat. Ben and Max Ringham’s outstanding sound design judders with the noise of traffic from the street and electric drills — a constant oppressive reminder of the city all around.

Machinal, Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, N1 1TA. Tickets £10–£39.50, until 21 July 2018.

Last Updated 13 June 2018