Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, written in 1928, explores the entrapment of women in the societal systems they have (short of killing) no control over. Presented as a timeless conflict in Natalie Abrahami’s production, it is saddening how much relevance it continues to hold today.
Delivered in expressionist episodes, the production detaches itself from moral imperative to present the story of Emily Berrington’s character, Helen. Introduced as a nameless Young Woman, she regains her name through resistance.
Truly the highlight of this performance is Miriam Buether’s stage design. From the angled mirrors extending beyond the stage to the simple, indicative furniture of each episode. There is a clear distinction between scenes, where the shift in spaces is total and remarkable.
Abrahami’s direction maximises these elements, using the mirrors to present simultaneous perspectives and realities. Placing the audience as a constant monitor allows the power imbalance to be tangible, making visible the machine that churns the life of Berrington’s ensnared heroine.
Held by Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, a constant sense of looming intrusion from the outside is created and used to both remind Helen of her confinement, and in the absence of, her freedom. Combined with Jack Knowles’ use of lighting, in fluctuating subtlety and brashness, an immersive sense of turmoil is produced.
Frustratingly, the content that sits within the refined and considered framework is consistently inconsistent. Select episodes such as the hospital and bedroom scenes manage to navigate the nightmarish environment, from harrowing pain to touching tenderness. Others, fail to engage.
Stemming from the characterisation, the accents are off and distracting, energy levels vary, characters change without staged development. Berrington’s character only seems to exist in the extremes, where the change is too sudden and unexplained. Even after the conclusion, her motivations and personality is uncertain.
Expressionism calls for heightened states from its actors, and in Machinal only a minority aims and succeeds in this. Others waver and by the end find themselves in, if only slightly, melodramatic realism. Denise Black’s Mother jolts the piece with her presence in the second episode, where the performance fleetingly finds its niche.
Whilst the ensemble found an unwavering rhythm that the text calls for, they did not seem to respond to each other throughout, resulting, as it happened in the first episode, in lines being spoken and consequently lost.
Whoever takes on Machinal’s hero is tasked with essentially carrying the production. Within the rich, stylised environment on stage, Berrington gets lost vis-à-vis the lack of clarity in her role.
Overall, it is the aforementioned framework that captivates. Expressionism is a style often side-lined by British theatre, so any spectacle grappling with it holds potential for an unfamiliar, and potentially challenging experience. That alone, is worth heading to the Almeida for.
Machinal is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 21 July
Photo: Johan Persson