Machinal review – hellish vision of America as an assembly line

Now is obviously a good time to revive Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 American play about women’s historic sense of entrapment. Although I have one reservation about Natalie Abrahami’s production, it is admirably faithful to the play’s expressionist origins and never allows its astonishing design to dominate the text, as happened in the National Theatre’s version 25 years ago.

Much of the meaning of Treadwell’s play resides in its title: the reduction of human beings to the level of machines. Her protagonist, initially known as Young Woman and only gradually named as Helen, undertakes what seems to be a predetermined course: as a humble stenographer, she succumbs to social pressure and the need to escape her bullying mum by marrying the boss, George H Jones. Marriage and motherhood, however, bring her no joy, and she only acquires an illusory freedom through an adulterous affair with a glamorous transient, one that proves fatal.

Treadwell’s writing is impressive for how much it leaves out. She doesn’t need to show us every detail of Helen’s honeymoon or home life to make us understand her sense of suffocation. You only have to listen to the staccato exchanges between Helen and George about a property deal (“Did they come through?” – “Sure they came through”) to realise that Treadwell prefigured Pinter and Mamet.

Emily Berrington as Helen and Jonathan Livingstone as her husband, George. Photograph: Johan Persson

While her dialogue is stylised, Treadwell uses the polyphonic possibilities of theatre to press home her point. From the outset, Helen seems surrounded by “the purgatory of noise”, whether it be the clack of office machinery, the clatter of garbage collectors or the drill that shreds her postnatal nerves. Sound has lately been reduced to an ominous hum in British theatre; in the expert hands of Ben and Max Ringham, it becomes a vital part of the play’s texture.

Miriam Buether’s design is also highly impressive without being pre-emptive. Her crucial device is the use of a vast, tilted mirror through which Helen’s life is constantly reflected: we move from the mechanised, meaningless bustle of office life, reminiscent of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, to closeups of Helen’s delicate hands spread out on a kitchen table. If I have any qualm about Abrahami’s production, it lies in its promiscuous approach to period. The office scene, with its typewriters and telephones, is straight out of the 1920s. By the time we get to Helen’s trial, complete with Fox News and CNN reporters, we are clearly in the present. I assume the idea is to portray Helen as Everywoman, but the beauty of Treadwell’s play is that it is both anchored in the past and timeless.

For the most part, however, Abrahami trusts Treadwell’s text and has cast shrewdly. Emily Berrington is ideal as Helen. She is fragile and whey-faced at first, angry after the traumas of childbirth (“I’ve submitted to enough – I won’t submit to any more”), then briefly and movingly liberated in the bedroom scene with her lover. Jonathan Livingstone as her smug husband, rejoicing in what he sees as his doll-wife, and Dwane Walcott as the truant lover lend assured support. At 90 minutes, the play is short. But Treadwell packs into that brief span an unforgettable portrait of a particular woman and of America itself as a hellishly dehumanised assembly line.

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