Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 16, 2014
Machinal by Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Lyndsey Turner. Set design by Es Devlin. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound designer by Matt Tierney. Original music by Matthew Herbert. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Choreography by Sam Pinkleton. Dialect Coach Kate Wilson. Cast: Rebecca Hall with Suzanne Bertish, Morgan Spector, and Michael Cumpsty, Damian Baldet, Ashley Bell, Jeff Biehl, Arnie Burton, Ryan Dinning, Scott Drummond, Dion Graham, Edward James Hyland, Jason Loughlin, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Daniel Pearce, Henny Russell, Karen Walsh, Michael Warner.
Actually, strike that. Though it technically has a script and requires actors, "play" simply isn't an accurate description of what Treadwell assembled back in 1928. This is more accurately a symphony, in which every character controls a distinct instrument, and each utterance is an inextricable component of the very soundscape of the universe. Yet even when a dozen of these instruments are heard at once, each is as clear as the unsettling meaning it outlines.
Such is the magic of Expressionism, the school of theatre that burgeoned in the 1920s and inspired playwrights from Treadwell to Elmer Rice (The Adding Machine) to Eugene O'Neill (The Hairy Ape, The Emperor Jones) to consider that a drama's delivery mechanism was at least as important as the message being conveyed. But nowhere was that mechanism's — and its message's — power more absolute than in Machinal.
Basing her writing on the real-life case of husband-killer Ruth Snyder, who was sent to the electric chair in 1928, Treadwell spun a simple story about a young woman who moves directly from her mother's house to that of the man she marries to an illicit lover's bed to... well, still other cages, knowing only scant moments of freedom in between. And though the action is certainly harrowing, especially as directed with ferocious passion by Lyndsey Turner, you don't exactly find yourself questioning what the next plot development will be.
You also cannot escape, even for a fraction of a second, the psychology in which the young woman has been wrapped and warped. Treadwell has measured and cut each word precisely, so that the banal chit-chat of an office becomes maddeningly oppressive, a simple conversation with a parent transforms into a declaration of war, a secluded honeymoon disintegrates into the least romantic tryst imaginable, giving birth becomes an inescapable death sentence, and so on. Certain simple phrases, such as those spoken by a telephone operator or a filing clerk, come to pierce; a man's drone can all but flay the skin off a woman with its relentless monotone.
Without rigorous attention to detail on the part of Treadwell and Turner, none of this would work. But because those two women realized that, with an experiment such as this, every syllable counts, they have ensured that none is wasted. And as the scenes unfold, the pile-up of language — things you've heard, things you haven't, things you're not sure about — becomes so towering that it has no choice but to collapse in on itself, which of course inspires an entirely new cacophony that catapults everyone straight into the lacerating and cruelly honest finale.
Of the actors, only Arnie Burton, in a relatively tiny role as a defense attorney, strikes a false note — his tempo is different, his tone overly bright compared to everyone else's, keeping him from seeming fully at home in this constrictive world. But there are no other missteps to be found. Particularly good are Suzanne Bertish as the burned-out mother, Michael Cumpsty as the strait-laced, stuffed-shirt husband (whose self-satisfied smugness of delivery elevates his every line) to Morgan Spector as the dangerously laid-back lover who opens the young woman's eyes to terrifying possibilities society has never before presented her.
As that young woman, Rebecca Hall manages to be at once luminous and trampled: an infinite spirit trapped within the confines of an unforgiving Earth. Tall and thin, and bearing (at first, anyway) a Clara Bow bob she tends to hide beneath a hat, the woman is special but trying not to look it, which Hall interprets as a gentle embarrassment that is stopping her from reaching her ultimate potential.
Though especially convincing in the scenes with her mother and husband, limning the boundaries of her metaphorical prison, Hall is excellent, too, facing the depressing prospect of motherhood, the catalytic spark provided by an affair, or the crushing weight of acceptance when her daring solution to her problem does not turn out quite as she expects. Throughout it all, Hall plays both a unique woman, too modern for the so-called "modern age," and Everywoman, struggling to invent and define herself decades before the sexual revolution.
But it's her grasp of the language that matters most, and there Hall does not falter: Her speech moves from pinched to open, from breathless to breathy, from tight to loose as required, always ringing against the ever-present backdrop of sound as discordant — destined for a life other than that into what she's fallen. You may not like her (there are plenty of reasons not to), but you understand her as deeply as you can understand anything or anyone.
So don't be surprised if you detect some of the young woman's angst, her loneliness, her incongruity in yourself — that's part of the point. What makes Machinal exciting is how well-oiled it is, perhaps more than any play ever. But what makes it fascinating, frustrating, and fantastic is that, above all else and through the din it creates before your eyes and ears, it's also impossibly, inescapably, and irredeemably human.