Today, Ruth Snyder is a name that most likely excites nothing more than a blank indifference. Yet in the late 1920s, Snyder was the highpoint of gossip: an American mother who had murdered her husband with the aid of her lover and whose execution by electric chair was captured in an unforgettable photograph for the New York Daily News. Yet, as time replaced the grapevine chatter with other scandals, Synder’s story could have been completely forgotten if it were not for a campaigning journalist and playwright, Sophie Treadwell, who had been involved in Snyder’s trial and was later to pen this incredible story in her most prominent work, Machinal.
Treadwell’s mostly biographical tale, considered the apex of Expressionist theatre, is told from a damning and irrepressible feminist stance. No Roxie Hart kind of figure, the Snyder character, here named Helen, is pushed and shoved by the world around her; an automaton to the figures of authority in her life. Having married her wealthy boss, whose forceful advances make her skin crawl, Helen is left as a body without independence. However, she will fight to the last to retain some integrity, chanting again and again the phrase that has rung throughout all subsequent feminist literature: “I will not submit!”
Oxford University Dramatic Society made a brave decision to choose Machinal as their Edinburgh Fringe piece, its twenties shock factor now appearing quite tame to the modern day audience desensitised to the world of murder and female subversion. Unfortunately, I felt that here the gamble did not pay off with the show coming across as rather predictable, unmoving and flat. Each scene could be easily guessed in advance with its feminist approach also appearing out-dated and at times frustratingly clichéd. The expressionist language of lists and garbles and word associations also made me wince with its pretentious ambitions.
However, the show was not lost altogether and some very promising acting was showcased. A special mention must be given to Nouran Koriem, playing Helen, whose nuanced expressions and intelligent understanding of the play were a pleasure to watch. The multifunctional use of set and the impressive contrasts of lighting also perfectly conveyed the atmosphere of the era, bathing the stage in a cold sterile pool of grey light.
Machinal is a show that I think sadly can no longer rely upon the text alone for a modern-day production. With a little more innovation in direction and a daring to re-invent the play for today’s audience, The Oxford University Dramatic Society could have a truly exciting work on their hands. But for now, this is a well-performed but ultimately failed production that left me feeling disappointed.
** – 2 stars
Machinal is at C nova until August 26th as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets see the Edinburgh Fringe website.