Tue 24th – Mon 30th July 2012


Thomas Stell

at 02:27 on 26th Jul 2012



“Machinal” is the story of a sensitive young woman trapped in a terrible and, for the most part, unfeeling world. It is a 1920’s American relative of German Expressionism; its simplified characters create the mechanism of the bourgeois through which is driven our suffering protagonist.

We see Helen at the beginning as an office typist, living at home with her mother, quiet and at once detached from her surroundings and oppressed by them. She marries her boss, because she must, and bears him a child. So far her life has been cold and without happiness, but this is suddenly changed when she meets a young man in a speakeasy, and falls in love with him. The two have an affair; Helen kills her husband in an attempt to make herself free from his world of business she can no longer tolerate; she is caught, tried, and put to death.

The planes of American society of the time are pulled until the inhumanity of the system is revealed. The scene in the typists’ office, played to the accompaniment of typewriters and the harsh cries of secretaries’ voices, reduced to “hello – hello – George H. Jones Company good morning – hello hello” on the telephone or the numbers shouted by a filing clerk, is properly clinical, as is the scene in the maternity ward when inhuman medics try to force Helen to show love for her child. The language is simple, the lines clipped, the actors are excited and leering, like Barney Iley-Williamson as a doctor, or cold and mechanical like Caitlin McMillan as Helen’s mother, both of whom give very good performances in those respects, as does the rest of the cast.

But there are moments when beauty comes into this world – in the speakeasy when an aesthete and his companion drink Amontillado and talk of Poe and Verlaine, or in the room of Helen’s lover, where he keeps a flower because it reminds him of his home country. Those points seem quite poetic and dreamlike, and indeed the whole piece has an unreal quality to it. The doubling which has characters from Helen’s life so far – her mother, husband, doctor, and lover – reappear as lawyers, clerks and reporters at her trial, is a device that reminds one of that phenomenon peculiar to nightmare.

Helen herself is played by Nouran Koriem, who gives a very capable account of the role, with a tense nervousness in her early scenes, shrinking away from her husband’s touch, going into a frenzied monologue on children, heaven and Saint Peter when left alone in hospital, and timidly opening into warmth with her new lover. She had my sympathy, and will have the sympathy of anyone who is for freedom, love, and beauty, and against the appalling notion that life consists only of the ordinary and the useful, expressed by Helen’s mother. The success of director Jack Sain, sound designer Simon Devenport, and designer Anna Lewis is in unobtrusively conveying the struggle of the sensitive against the insensitive and the ghastly and inevitable victory of the latter that we find in the play. Costumes are period, the set a collection of white tables for desks and beds, the sound a wash of period music and street noises.

Sophie Treadwell based her play on the case of contemporary murderess Ruth Snyder, and her treatment of an important event of her own time is admirable. She makes her characters mythical and symbolic, above the period’s anxieties, and this is something modern writers ought to learn from. Journalistic, verbatim theatre seems to me never to cause the political change its authors seem to want, or to inform better than ordinary journalism, or to be good art in expressive and aesthetic terms.


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