Machinal may have been written 90 years ago but a tale based on a true story still has the power and strong feminist message to speak directly to audiences today. Somewhat ironically given the subject matter, it also contains the kind of role that any actress would kill to get.
Over the last 25 years, Fiona Shaw has graced Stephen Daldry’s production at the National Theatre, while Rebecca Hall played the leading role of Helen (or as the programme refers to her Young Woman) for Roundabout on Broadway under the direction of Lyndsey Turner.
Rather than setting a story told in nine episodes in its original period, Natalie Abrahami brings it up-to-date which leads to a couple of anachronisms but is intended to give 21st-century viewers a better understanding of the insuperable psychological and social barriers that the highly sensitive (anti-)heroine attempts to overcome.
The 80-minute drama is played out on a Miriam Buether-designed set that turns the Almeida stage into a proscenium, with an oppressive, angled mirror bearing down on the actors while reflecting the stage and reminding the paying customers that they are voyeurs. A visually and aurally stunning opening set in a busy New York insurance office is reminiscent of and shares the musicality of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times but also acts as a perfect metaphor for Helen’s troubled mind. While trying to do her mundane job, the dangerously pale office worker is preyed on by the Vice President, Mr Jones, who offers her the chance of marital escape from the clutches of Denise Black’s awful, browbeating Mother.
Despite a visible revulsion for her suitor, played by Jonathan Livingston, Helen jumps into unhappy marriage, barely hardened by the appearance of a daughter, not to mention long bouts of illness and depression.
In a play that really is episodic, the drama jumps around so that immediately after the low times come highs, primarily inaugurated by a meeting in a speakeasy (something of an anachronism given the updating) with First Man, played by Dwane Walcott. The perennially unhappy protagonist finally smiles and shows a capacity for happiness as the couple progresses to the pleasures of the bedroom, presenting a big contrast to her haunted honeymoon.
In a further leap that could easily make one wonder whether some pages of the script had disappeared before the piece reached the stage, the action transforms into a somewhat ironic courtroom drama as Helen is indicted for a murder, the details of which we only learn gradually as proceedings advance to an inevitable conclusion, despite the efforts of two tetchy counsellors and an impatient judge.
This production grips from start to finish, aided by a simple set, inventive direction and a real star performance from Emily Berrington who seems to get right to the heart and soul of a sympathetic character with a knack for making the wrong decision, even when the right one would be much easier. While the drama can seem somewhat disjointed, this is an acceptable ploy on the part of the playwright, as it so effectively represents her central character’s outlook and the constant dilemmas that she faces.
It is never easy to get tickets for productions at the Almeida but, even if it takes some trouble, this exciting evening will fully justify the effort.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher