Old Vic

MACHINAL at the Old Vic


“a brave and exciting revival that mixes gritty absurdism with precision-cut stylisation and outstanding performances”

When Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” premiered in 1928, the New York Times was so intrigued that it reviewed the production twice – calling it ‘a triumph of individual distinction, gleaming with intangible beauty… an illuminating, measured drama such as we are not likely to see again’. The Times described it as a play that ‘in a hundred years… should still be vital and vivid’. Well – here we are, almost a hundred years later and – yes – it is still vital, vivid; and individual. Richard Jones’ revival at The Old Vic will ensure that Treadwell’s legacy will survive another century at the very least.

The play is inspired by (rather than based on) the real-life case of Ruth Snyder who was executed in the electric chair for the murder of her husband. Treadwell’s narrative gives us a fictionalised backstory in nine distinct episodes which describes the chain of events that leads an anonymous woman to her fate. We are shown the different phases of her life and the people she comes into contact with. Rosie Sheehy barely leaves the stage during her extraordinary portrayal of this ordinary woman. A woman who never finds her place. Never finds peace. Driven to eccentricity; disturbed and constrained, but essentially tender and pliable while the life around her is hard and mechanised.

It is a highly impersonal world in which the characters have no names. As a result, they don’t attract much sympathy and while we are drawn into their expressionist world, we are not invited to have any emotional involvement. It is the rhythm of the piece that keeps us going along for the ride. Jones’ direction is as stylish and stylised as the writing, although he is just one cog in the machine. Benjamin Grant’s discordant, staccato soundscape chimes with Adam Silverman’s lighting that both punctuate and underscore the narrative. Sarah Fahie is credited as movement director, but choreographer is a more apt description. Even Hyemi Shin’s mustard-tinged, claustrophobic set seems to have rehearsed its movements in time to the clockwork dialogue and the pulse of the play.

Repetition informs the action, adding to the sense of unease and entrapment our protagonist feels. She quits her humdrum job by marrying the boss – a misogynist who regards his wife as a business acquisition, yet Tim Francis brilliantly manages to find a very likeable eccentricity to an otherwise despicably outdated personality. Unfortunately, she can’t seem to just ‘quit’ her marriage, which eventually leads her to the extreme measures of murder, having bizarrely got the idea from a chance remark made by her lover (Pierro Niel-Mee). The feminist message is somewhat sabotaged along the way. And we never quite understand her detachment, nor indeed her disproportionate, sadistic treatment of her nagging, potato-obsessed mother (a wonderfully colourful and funny Buffy Davis).

Although a few of the scenes are drawn out, the pace never drags. We might not sympathise, but we enjoy the absurdity immensely. It is another world but uncomfortably like our own. Although we can see Kafkaesque influences, it is almost impossible to believe that “Machinal” was written a century ago; and we are also reminded of those that Treadwell has influenced in turn. This is a brave and exciting revival that mixes gritty absurdism with precision-cut stylisation and outstanding performances.


MACHINAL at the Old Vic

Reviewed on 18th April 2024

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Manuel Harlan




Previously reviewed at this venue:

JUST FOR ONE DAY | ★★★★ | February 2024
A CHRISTMAS CAROL | ★★★★★ | November 2023
PYGMALION | ★★★★ | September 2023



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