Sophie Treadwell’s masterful 1928 play Machinal has been revived at the Almeida as a play in ten episodes, each one segmented with a flash of searing lights and a title projected onto the front cloth of the theatre. Each one takes us a little further into the life of ‘Young Woman’, a complex and clearly disturbed individual who rails against the claustrophobic life she, as a woman, finds herself trapped in. Emily Berrington’s portrayal is nothing short of mesmerising. She delivers rambling monologues with ease, and achieves the not altogether easy task of drawing out the audience’s sympathy towards a fairly unlikeable character.
She is supported by a very strong ensemble, all of whom play multiple roles throughout. Refreshingly, it is the women for whom the most memorable parts have been written and Kirsty Rider and Denise Black take it in turns to shine, as the young woman’s sassy friend and overbearing mother, respectively. Jonathan Livingstone plays her husband, with just enough menace to keep the tension between them simmering.
The production is ambition, with ambitious set design by Miriam Buether – the details of which are just too good to spoil. Complemented by skilful lighting and sound design (respectively Jack Knowles, and Ben and Max Ringham), the constantly changing set tells the story every bit as much as the actors. Hats should go off also to the stage managers and dressers who execute what must be some of the most breathtaking scene and costume changes in the history of theatre.
It’s an odd sort of script, shamelessly expressionist in style and jarring – deliberately, perhaps. It engages with a type of feminism that may have been justified in the early twentieth century, but feels bizarre in this day and age. The conclusion it comes to (again – spoilers, spoilers!) is ambiguous, and perplexing. Having said that, Natalie Abrahami’s direction is sure, and in places dazzling. The opening scene, for one, brings an office to life in a stunning choreography of speech, lighting and sound.
Machinal is not an easy play to watch, and the characters mostly unlikeable. The speech is disjointed and every ten minutes or so there’s the risk of permanent retina damage from those blinding episode lights. For all that, it’s a cracking insight into the mind of a confused and dangerous woman.