Guildhall School of Music & Drama presents MACHINAL by Sophie Treadwell: Theatre Review

I knew nothing of Machinal or the playwright’s other work before this production, beyond that which was detailed in the promotional blurb. So it was exciting, to enter an auditorium with little expectation of what I was going to see. All I knew, and what had driven me to attend in the first place, was that the role of the main character was being shared by nine young actresses in their final year of the BA Acting course at Guildhall. However, it became irrelevant to me very quickly that I was watching actors in training, due to the impressive quality of their performances overall.

Machinal is written in the 1920s Expressionist style by the American playwright and journalist, Sophie Treadwell. It is a response to the murder conviction of Ruth Snyder, who was found guilty of matricide and sentenced to die in the electric chair. A chilling story, but Machinal remains more preoccupied with the woman behind the murder rather than the act of murder itself. Typical of Expressionism, Machinal documents the fragile emotional journey of the central ‘Young Woman’ through nine short episodes, portraying the strained relationships with her mother, husband, baby girl and the cold, mechanical world she feels so alienated from. Jamie Vartan’s set communicates this alienation stylistically and further connotes the Young Woman’s sense of entrapment by surrounding the stage with an imposing wire cage. Anna Watson’s lighting design also contributes to this feeling of isolation, using spots to separate the Young Woman from everything else, adding to her desire to be both left alone and free.

Machinal is interesting in the way it portrays its central character of the Young Woman, because she is not someone we immediately recognise as a vengeful heroine. She is certainly no Medea or Tamora; she is not an evil, conniving murderess. She is shown throughout the play as being nervous, delicate, suppressed and isolated, even when she confesses to the murder in court and awaits her execution on death row. Committing murder is the only thing the Young Woman can do for herself in her whole life, making her fate all the more tragic. She is the archetypal oppressed, crumbling under external controls that bear down on her such as the societal expectations of finding a husband and having children. In the second scene, ‘At Home’, the Young Woman’s mother (Emma Naomi) coerces her into eating more potatoes whilst outside a chorus of voices in the street symbolises the suffocation of her own thoughts. Machinal contains many moments like this that emphasise the subtlety with which one can slowly lose grip on their autonomy through no fault of their own. In the fourth scene, ‘Maternal’, Katrina McKeever captures the Young Woman’s frustration and estrangement in an intelligent performance, complemented by a nervous Rebecca Lee in the third scene (‘Honeymoon’) and a desperate Emily-Celine Thomson in the eighth (‘The Law’). The difficulty of having the same character played by multiple actors is that this can leave it open to discrepancies in interpretation. This may have been an issue had the production had a lesser cast, but it was clear that the actresses had worked intensely to avoid such inconsistency and they all deserve high praise for their collective success.

A small criticism would be that it is difficult to critique some of the performances given by the male contingent of the cast because their characters lacked dimension and stage-time. Those of note included Niall Ransome as the husband, Edward Sayer in both of his roles, and Jesse Michael Angelo as the defence lawyer. Also, in the first scene, it was hard to pick up some of the lines due to the soundtrack of clattering typewriters and other machinery. Whilst I understand this noise is an important thematic feature of the play, it should not be detrimental to the delivery of the script. However the following scenes provided a welcome contrast to this and there were constant changes of pace which kept the production moving forward dynamically.

The production’s ending was what sealed the deal for me. The powerful use of lighting coupled with the monotonous chanting of the priest and the previous incarnations running up to the prison bars to bid farewell to Charlie Bate’s Young Woman as she made her way to ‘The Machine’ packed a real punch. This is a production that would feel quite at home on-stage at the Barbican or the Almeida. A stylish piece expertly put together by Edward Dick, performed by the exciting young actors of our tomorrow.

© Hannah Roe, 2015


MACHINAL by Sophie Treadwell

Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Silk Street, Barbican, London, EC2Y 8DT

Closes 1st April

Running time: 1hr 45mins, no interval

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