Emily Berrington played a conscious robot in the Channel 4 drama Humans. In Machinal, she plays a young woman who isn’t supposed to think and feel – a cog in the unstoppable capitalist, patriarchal machine.
When it was written by American journalist Sophie Treadwell in the 1920s, Machinal was decades ahead of its time and still feels astonishingly, and depressingly, pertinent. Loosely based on a notorious murder case, it’s about a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage who snaps and murders her husband. (In the 1928 premiere, he was played by Clark Gable making his Broadway debut.)
The play is divided into nine disjointed “episodes”, beginning with the morning a stenographer’s lecherous boss proposes and ending with the day she’s sent to the electric chair. Young Woman – the only name she’s given in the programme notes – is repulsed by her boss, but marries him because society expects it.
On their honeymoon, she shrinks from his touch and hackneyed conversation. When she becomes a mother, she cannot bear the sight of her baby daughter.
Speaking in a Brooklyn accent, Berrington looks very fragile on stage – pale, small and extremely nervy. In the opening scene, she twitches and quivers while her workmates hammer a relentless rhythm on their typewriters. When she breaks her silence, her internal monologues are fragments of raw emotion, sort of like jagged poems – in stark contrast to her odious husband’s well oiled platitudes.
Director Natalie Abrahami’s production is an assault on the senses. She does away with the interval so the play is squeezed into an intense 90 minutes. The slick scene changes are marked with blinding lights and Berrington recoils from the sound effects that intrude on every scene.
Miriam Buether’s set design includes a huge slanting mirror that hangs just above the actors, distorting the action and heightening the sense of claustrophobia. Like Treadwell’s antiheroine, the audience is on an unstoppable conveyor belt, being swept along to the inexorable denouement.
Abrahami sets each scene a decade or so after the last one, presumably to illustrate how little has changed since Machinal premiered on Broadway 90 years ago. Towards the end the modern clothes jar and make the plot seem dated – would a woman in the 80s have felt powerless to divorce her husband, as she claims in court? We can only hope not.
Still, this is a powerful, thought-provoking production of a feminist classic that hasn’t been performed in the UK for 25 years. See it while you can.
Machinal is at London’s Almeida Theatre until 1 July