Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal is a theatrical cry from the deep. Her time spent as a journalist propels this real life story (with artistic license) of the first woman to get the electric chair in the US, highlights the society within which it was conceived. This work also highlights the mental health of its main character, decades before the issue would get the knowledge it deserves. The impact the play had at its premiere still makes the work attractive to contemporary eyes.
Within nine fragmentary scenes, we see Helen, the “Young Woman” struggle with work, her new husband, her first child and the eventual murder of her spouse (we don’t see the killing). The secret places Treadwell speaks of that exists within audience members becomes exposed as we fall into this absorbing story. For a play written over 90 years ago, some of the story is surprisingly contemporary. A taboo breaking bar scene includes conversation between gay men who compare amontillado with men, coded as witty dialogue for the sake of their safety. A couple openly discuss an abortion in a conversation almost as if plucked from Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. The only shock was a racist remark out of left field from Helen’s hook up with the First Man, his love of purely “white women”. I guess we could count on a play this old to have this sort of sting in it.
Ruby Hartley is Helen, in a heartfelt performance, with a decent New York accent to boot. She makes the show and her break down is a heartfelt performance of a woman who always had “to submit” to those around her. I find myself in a fleeting debate with my plus one concerning the delivery of lines during these manic episodes of wordy anxiety, operatic in their intensity. I feel that not every word should be picked up on, as it functions more as an appeal to us as an audience to witness these episodes with concern and growing empathy. Her husband is played by Heider Ali, who has all the business bravo that works well in David Mamet. Even his fake laugh peels through the air, a mask for his personality, also being despised by his younger wife. There are flickers of great energy from him.
Finnian Garbutt is the adventurous Young Man who is the man that Helen hungers for (though his betrayal is all the more sad). The performance has worth, with some sex appeal, though some more energy would help pepper the performance. The ensemble cast are a swift display of menace and intrigue, the opening scene feeling more like something out of Kafka than American Expressionism. Some of the accents need a bit more work, and the pacing of the courtroom scene and concluding execution scene require more space to breath.
Directed by Sean Linnen, I feel the piece was lacking in some areas, but did very well in others. Sound work by Chris Laurich is faithful to the original requirements, moody synths complimenting the typewriters, building equipment and bar chat. The set by Jack Valentine is a sterile white swimming pool, brilliantly complimenting the drowning sensation that Helen experience when having her panic attacks.
Machinal is a must see, though it is not for the faint of heart.
Machinal continues at the Royal Welsh College till 12th February 2019, along with performances of Thérèse Raquin and What We Know.