Violent crimes committed by women always seem more shocking, as though the idea of overcoming their supposedly nurturing and gentle natures somehow amplifies the evil of their bloodthirsty acts. Some of the most famous cases stay with us – Lizzie Borden who killed both her parents, Alma Rattenbury who murdered her husband and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK. Time and again these stories are examined in cultural spaces, including endlessly revived plays like Terrence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre, society is fascinated by women who don’t conform, unwilling to accept that some are equally capable of the most savage acts.
Based on a similar case, in 1928 journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell captured the soul-crushing restrictions placed on women in her impressive expressionist play Machinal. Far more than just a shocking murder story, it is an anatomy of a woman driven to despair by the stifling pressure to marry and have children merely because it was expected of her – a theme that will resonate powerfully with those who 90 years on are still encouraged to do the same. The central character’s continual cry to be let alone rings true today, society hasn’t changed so very much after all.
Taking place over nine scenes Machinal follows “Young Woman”, who through marriage, children and notoriety earns the name Helen Jones, and is working as a stenographer in a busy typing pool. Frequently late for work because of her subway claustrophobia, her colleagues speculate that the boss Jones wants to marry her. Equally confined by the tiny tenement apartment she shares with her overbearing mother, the play cuts to the wedding night and later to the birth of their first child where she becomes increasingly disgusted with her life, and desperate to escape. Then, a liberating encounter with “First Man”, leads Helen to take a drastic step to secure her freedom.
Revived at the Almeida Theatre, Natalie Abrahami’s production has a post-film noir aesthetic that adds a seedy darkness to Treadwell’s story. Miriam Buether has created a proscenium arch set with a tilted mirrored ceiling, a black box that confines Helen to a series of shadowy rooms in Jack Knowles’s low light. The action is then directly relocated to a series of passing decades, with each scene taking place in a slightly different era to its predecessor. Some critics found this either distracting or unnecessary, creating a rootlessness that upends the production, but there is much to admire not only in the way Buether recreates the essence of each period, but also in the expectations of women.
Had director Abrahami left the story in the 1920s, or picked any time until the present day, its purpose would have remained as relevant and clear – the joy of such a well-constructed play – and in that sense this transience is superfluous. Yet Buether’s design underscores, without distracting from, its political point that women’s essential freedom to design their own lives is no more a reality now that it was in the 1920s.
And it’s gorgeous to look at; darkness envelops every peripheral point of the stage, creeping around our beleaguered heroine as if about to drag her into the its folds at any moment. The focus of each scene, while dimly lit, are boldly picked-out often in burning lurid colour in the centre, purposefully constructed to emphasise the continuing isolation of the protagonist as her world shrinks from office to family. From a 1920s/30s typing pool full of rhythmic staccato clacks, to the hot pink blanket covering the honeymoon bed, to the citrus sofa of the marital home, the deliberate use of vivid colour contrasts so brutally with Helen’s emotional experience – she couldn’t feel less vibrant, refreshed or passionate as she slowly suffocates.
The visual effect appears to owe much to high fashion photographer Miles Aldridge, and its not hard to see his influence in the creation of striking stage images. Often in his work he places doll-like models in domestic environments – kitchens, supermarkets, gardens – playing on the Stepford Wives association of these empty-minded, plastic creations. Most relevant to Buether’s choices in Machinal, is the way he clashes and contrasts tones of highly saturated colour to add a sense of heightened reality, a falsity that suits the pressure on Helen to conform to societal expectations of marriage and parenting. Cunningly, Buether rolls-back these ideas in the three scenes where Helen feels most free, the gorgeous softly lit 1970s bar, the warm bedroom of her lover and the grey formality of the courtroom.
One of the joys of Machinal, is the sparsity of information offered in the text. Treadwell shies away from excessive exposition to show us only the crucial or formative moments that set Helen on the road to destruction. Plot is not quite the point of this clever play, but the emotional build of the character as she is ground beyond endurance, unwilling to submit to further automation. There is so much we don’t (or need to) see as the action skips from office to hotel to delivery room. Even the crime itself only becomes clear long after the fact as the prosecution delivers its attack, pushing Helen for the final time – a scene that lacks the sharply-honed dialogue and stylistic flair of the earlier action – as 90 carefully-controlled minutes arrive at their still shocking conclusion. This is referenced throughout by Knowles’s blinding flash of light that takes the audience between scenes, a jolt of electricity transporting us through time and a symbol of the greater force to come.
It’s not just the visual effects that are striking as Helen’s mental solitude is also under permanent aural attack. Designed by Ben and Max Ringham, the soundscape here is extraordinary, blasting in at the beginning and end of every scene, and almost muted to a low rumble of sound as the action plays out, appropriately reflecting the machine-gun-like delivery of Treadwell’s pointedly-constructed dialogue. There are typewriters nosily in tune with one another, drills beyond the maternity ward, music from the bar floats into the wedding night, all implying an exciting world beyond which Helen is prevented from enjoying, entombed as she is in a series of dark rooms.
As Helen, Emily Berrington has exactly the right tone of exhausted defiance, a woman standing slightly back from her own life as though observing from a distance, unable to stop the machinations of duty and expectation from pulling her under. None of the performances are designed specifically to earn audience sympathy, but instead act as representations of social archetypes, and Berrington, with considerable skill, consciously muffles the performance to convey an idea of Helen being constantly underwater, abstracted from her own actions as though impelled by some external force.
As Helen ticks the boxes of marriage and family, we see her develop from the fatigued young secretary, physically buffeted by those by around her, to a no less frustrated but more confident woman who takes a drastic step to release herself. The credibility of Berrington’s performance carries the audience through all of these stages, building up a picture of someone who has shouldered all they can bear, while clearly relishing the one taste of freedom she’s ever offered that becomes the tipping point.
Everyone else in Treadwell’s stylised piece becomes a vivid sketch, moments of unbearable noise -like the sound intrusions around Helen – that she cannot block out. Her former boss and husband Jones, played by Jonathan Livingstone, is a decent enough man with a good job and seemingly devoted to his wife and family, but Livingstone ensures we see him from Helen’s point of view. He too has a societal role to fulfil as provider and employer, so his demands for her affection seem to him something he is due by right, an access to her attention and her body bestowed on him by marriage. It’s subtle work from Livingstone who only hints at these ideas while using his appearances to suggest a man satisfied with his consumption-based life.
In a limited speaking role, Denise Black has a wonderful scene as Helen’s mother early in the show who in equal measures pushes and chastises her daughter for deciding to marry. Her mother is another noise in Helen’s life, dragging her down with responsibilities of care while Black captures her own struggle as a working-class woman raising a daughter alone. Abrahami uses her large supporting cast to create the crush of the city in the opening scene on the subway, the busy office and later the courtroom which in Buether’s box-like proscenium arch makes even the small Almeida stage feel claustrophobic. The extended cast also bring energy to Arthur Pita’s choreography used to underscore the punchy rhythm of Treadwell’s text.
Machinal is the type of production that only the Almeida seems able to produce, with an inventive vision that simultaneously draws you into the story while still keeping you at arms length. As observers, Treadwell is asking us to see Helen’s pain but remain numb to it, and instead to reflect on the mounting pressures that pushed her to an extreme act of violence. The sensationalism of female crime hasn’t much changed since the 1920s, but nor have the voices telling us our primary purpose is to marry and reproduce. Treadwell certainly feels ahead of her time, and the Almeida has produced a first-rate version of her finest work.
Machinal is at The Almeida Theatre until 21 July. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1