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Review: Machinal

This revival of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 classic packs an emotional punch


‘Machinal’ is a very different play to most that I have seen. It is probably better described as an experience. Despite the fact that director Zach Lonberg has chosen to keep the play in its original 1920s setting, the audience always feel like they are involved and part of the action. The production does not shy away from the full emotional and visceral force of the original play and at times I thought it was maybe even overdone.

The play is inspired by the real-life case of Ruth Snyder, convicted for murdering her husband and sentenced to death in 1928, the same year that the show premiered. It frames the story from her perspective, taking a critical look at the wider causes of her crime to paint a more sympathetic portrayal of the character trying to rebel against the patriarchal forces of early 20th Century America.

Machinal is pertinent in seeking to highlight that we are powerless in a highly mechanised, anonymous world, and the production highlights this using techniques such as the continuous telephone ringing of the opening scene, or the fact that we know the protagonist only as “A Young Woman” before she is gradually named as Helen as the action progresses. This gradual humanisation of the main character (an inspired performance by Emma Dawes), reflected how I thought the play improved as it went on.

The characters at first sometimes seemed like gender stereotypes who lacked much real complexity (the emotional woman, the happy-go-lucky husband, and the ultimately unfaithful Casanova). For example, her husband (Jay Palombella), is summed-up by that fact that he tells Helen that she has to “look the bull in the face” when she is struggling with her pregnancy. Although as one of the first feminist plays, it is unlikely that these were seen as much as stereotypes in 1928, I thought that a modern reproduction could have added some more emotional subtlety at times.

Image credit: Sean Huang

This did seem to be more the case in the second act though, for example when we see Helen smiling and laughing for the first time with “A Lover” she met in a bar, convincingly played by Rob Monteiro. I particularly enjoyed the singing in Spanish, and overall the emotional contrast of this scene with the others worked well in emphasising the tragedy of the murder and her own death.

We never actually see the scenes of most emotional intensity, such as the murder. Perhaps this is to rid Helen of the guilt of the act. In the end we are all implicated as part of the cause of her crime, Treadwell seems to say. For this reason the play was sometimes quite uncomfortable to watch. The sound, produced by Ranjana Ram, was effective in emphasising this. I thought the use of extremely piercing and disquieting sounds, such as the constant ringing of a phone or the beeping noise, was inventive and effective, although it sometimes slightly drowned out the actors onstage. Even so, it was a very multi-sensorial experience, and I was viscerally affected by many of the scenes, as I squirmed and struggled to figure out whether the beeping was just in my head.

Image credit: Sean Huang

Overall, the production often found moments of brilliance and was a timely reminder of women’s historic sense of entrapment. Although at times it found subtlety, such as the double-casting of actors in roles that show the same attitudes towards the Helen, at the end I was left wanting something else- perhaps a suggestion of how things have or haven’t changed since 1928. The expressionist parts of the play such as the harsh lighting (Angela (Shuyi) Li) and the sound were very unique though, and in the style of the original, the play really did preserve the inventive and experimental feel.

3.5/5