Director Natalie Abrahami: ‘Theatremakers must lead the public conversation and push things forward’
Since her five-year tenure as co-artistic director of London’s Gate Theatre, during which she championed women writers, the director has forged a fruitful freelance career. She tells Sam Marlowe why her latest production Machinal, written in 1928, is more relevant than ever
Sophie Treadwell is possibly the most prolific, trailblazing US dramatist you’ve never heard of. If her name is familiar, it’s almost certainly as the author of Machinal, her remarkable Expressionist 1928 drama inspired by a real-life murder case. Yet Treadwell wrote more than 30 plays, as well as four novels, alongside a career as a journalist, during which she penned articles on the sex industry and homelessness, and filed reports from the front line during the First World War.
So why don’t we know more about her? The answer is depressingly obvious. “A male playwright of her output and talent… well, just think of the reams written about Eugene O’Neill,” sighs Natalie Abrahami, who is directing a revival of Machinal at the Almeida Theatre in London.
“It’s so frustrating that if you want to read her other playtexts, you have to contact a library in Arizona and have them scanned. Maybe that’s something this production can help to rectify. It would be nice to see a published collected works.”
When we meet, Abrahami is in the thick of technical rehearsals for the production. The play is constructed in nine jagged scenes, or what she calls “episodes”, which move from workplace to marriage bed to childbirth, courtroom and execution. It shows a young woman struggling against the demands and restrictions of social expectation, capitalism and the patriarchy, a kind of infernal machine that distorts her life and denies her humanity. As she finds her voice, she is also driven to violence.
The play caused a sensation when it premiered on Broadway, starring a pre-Rhett Butler Clark Gable. It drew on a real crime that loomed large and lurid in the public imagination – housewife Ruth Snyder killed her husband with her lover Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman, for which they were both sent to the electric chair.
But, far from being exploitative of a contemporary crime, Treadwell’s play borrows only the barest facts from the Snyder case, and critics at the time hailed it as the work of a significant dramatic talent – and it’s something of an injustice that it virtually vanished for the next six decades.
The last major revival in Britain was at the National Theatre in 1993, when Stephen Daldry directed Fiona Shaw in the lead role. Four years ago in the US, Rebecca Hall starred in a production directed by Lyndsey Turner. Both versions were noted for their elaborate staging, which created nightmarish visions of mechanised horror. Abrahami’s approach is less reliant on extravagant designs and more psychologically driven. “There’s a sort of backstage ballet going on. The technology is there, but hopefully no one will really see it,” she says.
If Treadwell’s uncompromising, visceral drama was a success in 1928, Daldry’s staging met with a more mixed reception, and Turner’s with some outright hostility. New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote patronisingly of Machinal’s central character as “tragically crushable”. And in Variety, another reviewer complained: “It’s tough to empathise with someone who lacks a backbone and hasn’t a brain in her head.”
Confronted with these assessments, Abrahami looks stunned: “I’m speechless.” For the director, the play’s lead character Young Woman – whose name, Helen Jones, is rarely used in the text and who is played at the Almeida by Emily Berrington – is anything but fragile and passive. “She’s constantly asking, ‘Do I have the right to want more for myself? Do I have the right to say this feels wrong?’ ” Abrahami says. “I think that feels particularly potent now, with people trying to be so much clearer about their boundaries, and feeling that they can demand something better for themselves and for the future.”
Given the current tide of conversation and protest around gender, and in the wake of the #MeToo campaign, the play feels particularly timely: its opening scene even features some nastily routine office sexual harassment. But while Abrahami concedes that “feminism is at the heart of it”, she’s keen to emphasise that inequality impacts on everyone. “This play would be a clarion call at any time that you produced it, but at the moment… All the revelations that have come out have allowed people to be more open and political about their thinking, and to address how we can ask for change. That feels quite exciting. But I want it to be clear that the men are trapped in the patriarchy too – it’s not just about the women.”
Q&A: Natalie Abrahami
What was your first non-theatre job?
Telesales. I sold vacuum cleaners – not very well.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Usher and graduate trainee at London’s Royal Court Theatre.
What’s your next job?
Directing the premiere of Charlotte Jones’ The Meeting at Chichester Festival Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That directing is lonely, so creating a peer group is vital. And to remember that you are always a director, even when you are not directing – which, let’s face it, is most of the time – so self-care and tenacity will be your friends.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mum. She first took me to the theatre as a child and she is the person I always imagine trying to hook in to a play’s narrative.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Remember that listening is at the root of the word, and that in an audition you are trying to figure out whether you can tune into one another and work together to evolve a character.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, but I used to make pencils with people’s names carved into them to give out on the first day of rehearsals. It came about because I always get panicky when I see people writing in pen in a script, and so this was my way of saying we will be forever making changes. But I’ve grown out of the habit. Maybe I’ll start up the whittling again for The Meeting.
Machinal follows Ella Hickson’s incendiary The Writer on to the Almeida stage, another feminist drama that, like Treadwell’s play, is an audacious experiment in form. Does Abrahami feel we’re finally nearing a breakthrough in terms of gaining some sort of parity for female theatremakers?
“Well, I personally feel really blessed to be working on this, and then I’m going straight on to Charlotte Jones’ new play.” The Meeting – set among a Quaker community during the Napoleonic War – opens at the Minerva in Chichester in July. “So that’s two plays by extraordinary female writers with brilliant female protagonists at the heart of them, and that’s a happy union. But those are things I’ve always looked for in my work.”
Collaborating with other talented women was a cornerstone of Abrahami’s tenure, with fellow director Carrie Cracknell, at the Gate Theatre from 2007 until 2012. Among the emerging talents to whom the pair gave a platform were Sam Holcroft, Lucy Kirkwood, Nancy Harris and Alexandra Wood. “Carrie and I commissioned a lot of women to reinterpret classics, and those women are now part of the establishment. We wanted to make sure that women could have that voice; that they felt they can tackle a Chekhov or an Ibsen.”
Abrahami and Cracknell’s appointment as artistic directors was, she says, a risky act of “single-mindedness and youthful exuberance” by the Gate. “I’d never run anything before, other than a student overdraft.” She had read English at Cambridge, where she’d directed fellow undergraduate, and, coincidentally, Broadway Machinal star Hall in a production of Neil LaBute’s Bash: Latter-Day Plays in the college swimming pool.
She had also assisted Ian Rickson at the Royal Court in London. Other assisting gigs followed, elicited by writing numerous “love letters” to directors she admired. In 2005, she won the JMK Award for directors for her Beckett double bill of Play and Not I, at the Battersea Arts Centre, starring acclaimed Beckett interpreter Lisa Dwan.
She and Cracknell stayed at the Gate until Abrahami developed a vitamin D deficiency from spending so much time in the dark basement theatre space. At that point they felt it was time to move on and make space for new blood.
She doesn’t rule out the idea of running another building, and found being an associate to David Lan at the Young Vic a particularly rewarding experience – one that gave her the opportunity to forge a creative partnership with Juliet Stevenson, with whom she worked on Beckett’s Happy Days and Arthur Kopit’s Wings.
For now, though, Abrahami is happy to be freelance, saying: “I’m really enjoying the variety.” What she wants, more than anything, is to continue to make work that challenges and stimulates. “It’s the responsibility of theatremakers to lead the public conversation and push things forward,” she says. “I wouldn’t get up in the morning if I didn’t think theatre had the power to provoke.”
CV: Natalie Abrahami
Born: 1979, London
Training: English literature, Christ’s College, University of Cambridge
• Vanya, Gate Theatre, London (2009)
• The Kreutzer Sonata, Gate (2009)
• After Miss Julie, Young Vic, London (2012)
• How the Whale Became, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House (2013)
• Happy Days, Young Vic (2014)
• Ah, Wilderness!, Young Vic (2015)
• Queen Anne, Royal Shakespeare Company (2015), Theatre Royal Haymarket (2017)
• Wings, Young Vic (2017)
• JMK award (2005)
• Paul Hamlyn Breakthrough Fund for Creative Entrepreneurs (2009)
Agent: Rose Cobbe, United Agents
Machinal runs at London’s Almeida Theatre until July 21 and The Meeting will run at Chichester Festival Theatre from July 13 to August 11