There was a recent thread on Twitter – apologies, I can’t remember the origin or accounts involved – but it talked about how bloggers are often hampered in assessing the broader impact of plays, and the landscape they are working in, as unlike paid critics, there isn’t the time, capacity or support to see every show there is.
I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time – not because I thought it was wrong, but more because I was just scrolling through and I didn’t really know how I felt so didn’t contribute. I agreed with the sentiment but was unsure how this limited my own assessment of what I see. And I raise this now as, after seeing Machinal at the Almeida Theatre, I get the importance of this observation.
For, you see, this revival of Sophie Treadwell’s expressionist play is stunning. Claustrophobic in its intensity, almost suffocating in its depiction of the relentless crushing of one woman by the capitalist and misogynistic power structures that define how women’s lives are shaped and gendered, Machinal is unequivocally powerful and searing relevant.
Yet, when I think about this show in the broader context of the work from women creatives, and the depiction of white women and black bodies in theatre right now, I get a little on edge.
But let’s come back to that later… First, Machinal:
Christ, this play is intense. Have I made that clear yet??! I found its visceral grip intoxicating. For here we follow Helen (the fantastic Emily Berrington) through nine key stages of her life, each shown sequentially, and each furthering the encroachment of capitalism and misogyny into the female space from workplace harassment to the Metropolis-esque existence of the working classes, from the burden of being a daughter to the loneliness of marriage. And on to the violent repercussions of what can come when woman hits breaking point.
This is destruction writ large. It’s representation of humanity as cogs in the capitalist wheel packs a punch and its message is perfectly accentuated under director Natalie Abrahami’s watchful eye with a production design that extinguishes all form of natural light and where the constant hum of human activity drives you mad.
Sure, a lot of the play, if not all of it, is very on-the-nose. It’s not subtle and I don’t think it’s meant to be, and that didn’t bother me at all. The Writer may have been a howling yell at injustice, this feels more like a suffocated scream, demonstrated so achingly well by Emily who plays Helen as if her skin is raw, bleeding and utterly exposed.
But, circling back to my point about wider context… The Almeida has (rightly) been given a lot of plus points for centring its current season around women’s voices, women creatives and women experiences. In this, the psychologically-charged Machinal follows on from the visceral The Writer that was a tsunami of fury. Which followed on from the wistful and languid awakening of an anxious young woman in the Rebecca Frecknall-directed, Summer and Smoke.
The emotional variety in these women’s stories initially excited me – and, individually, I am a HUGE fan of each of these shows. However, I wouldn’t say that when I look at them as a whole they would uniformly pass the Bechdel Test, for instance.
Maybe The Writer would creep over the line with its last scene but in each of these plays, the woman’s existence and emotional state is defined by men and misogyny, and though there may be truth in this, having a collection of plays about women where each is led by female characters defined by men makes me feel uneasy. Constantly defining women by their relationship with men is not a good look.
Add to this, when we take a step back, it’s clear to see that these three plays centre the experience of the white woman above all else. That obviously isn’t great, especially when most of us would like to see the Almeida, in particular, take more positive steps towards greater diversity and inclusion.
And this isn’t helped with some questionable casting decisions and depictions of people of colour. We know the final scene in The Writer is a little tricky when it comes to the examination of power structures amongst women but Machinal has similar issues.
Helen’s purity is a key theme in Machinal, one that is accentuated by Emily’s pale pallor and some intense spotlighting. Contrast that to the black skin of her lover who repeatedly refers to her purity and how she is an angel. Angel – a word that Helen grabs on to as a compliment, but
I felt the racial dynamics on display only brought up bad vibes of the corruption of white women by black men – a dangerous racist trope that needs to be extinguished – and reinforces uncomfortable societal depictions of angels as whiteness. As symbols of purity. Only reinforcing, by inference, the dirtiness and devilishness of black people.
And this comes only a few days after seeing Polly Stenham’s and Carrie Cracknell’s Julie at the National Theatre. Here, like Machinal, questionable issues of race and problematic depictions of people of colour have been brought up by seemingly clumsy handling.
So, do I like Machinal? Yes, I do. I think it’s extraordinary (and depressing as hell) that such contemporary relevance can be found in a ninety-year old text. And kudos to Natalie Abrahami for such an intense production that only tightens its grip as it powers its way through its eighty-minute running time.
But as we push for diversity and the platforming of diverse voices, we do need to take a step back and think about whose voices we are centring in these productions – and whose voices we are still not listening to.
Almeida Theatre, London, to July 21, 2018.
Tickets from £10.
All production images by Johan Persson.
Writer: Sophie Treadwell
Director: Natalie Abrahami
Set Design: Miriam Buether
Costume Design: Alex Lowde
Lighting: Jack Knowles
Costume Supervision: Jemima Penny
Video: Robin Fisher