Written in 1928 and inspired by the true story of the first woman to be executed by electric chair in New York, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal feels intimately related to the work of literary experimenters Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson. It’s a play of the jazz age, a lightning bolt, a roar.
Split into nine episodes, the play tells the story of a Young Woman (Emily Berrington), who marries the first man who shows her the slighted bit of attention – she’s resigned to the idea that all women marry eventually, it’s what people do – and ends up trapped in a stifling household with a man she does not love, raising a child she never really wanted to have.
Though there have been a couple of recent-ish revivals, including a 2014 Broadway production starring Rebecca Hall, for a long time Treadwell’s play was rarely performed. This is a shame. It’s a fascinating piece, a formally bold and explicitly feminist study of an ordinary woman who snaps under societal pressure. Miss Jones – her name is rarely used in the play – does everything she believes she is supposed to do and yet still she ends up trapped and suffocated.
With each scene, Natalie Abrahami’s production subtly shifts forward in time. The opening episode resembles something from King Vidor’s 1928 classic The Crowd, but later, when the Young Woman takes a lover (Dwane Walcott), the tone feels more like an episode of Mad Men. Later Nirvana and Nina Simone jostle for prominence on the soundtrack.
The ceiling of Miriam Buether’s set consists of a sloping mirror. This allows the audience an overhead view of Berrington as she lays weeping on her marital bed, or catatonic in the maternity ward. It’s an exhausting part and she’s superb in it, febrile with fear and frustration yet also contained.
Between each ‘episode’ a shutter descends across the stage like a great, blinking eye, as the machine in which the woman is caught resets itself. Much of the language in Treadwell’s expressionistic play has a clicky-clacky syncopated quality. It’s full of verbal riffs and short bursts of words interspersed with moments in which Berrington simply breaks down and howls “I will not submit” again and again.
When she meets a man to whom she is genuinely attracted, the sense of release and excitement is palpable. A later scene, in which she is held down and shaved by two prison barbers, is one of the most distressing of the whole production – in the end she does not even have control over her body.
Not everything in Abrahami’s remarkably intense production works. Its refusal to locate itself in time comes to feel frustrating and the later courtroom scenes feel a bit pedestrian compared with what has gone before. But it makes a captivating chaser to Ella Hickson’s The Writer, the previous play at the Almeida, and demonstrates Treadwell’s adventurousness as a playwright.