Review: Machinal – Old Vic

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A Superb Sensory Overload

The claustrophobic, bright yellow triangular space soon became over-populated with commuters crushed into a train carriage and then a lift ascending an office block before miraculously transitioning into a busy office. A young woman arrives late for work. She is the star of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal and she is Rosie Sheehy who gives a phenomenal performance, writes Michael Holland.

Machinal is based around the 1928 trial and execution of Ruth Snyder, a story that Treadwell, a journalist, had followed. Like most of her plays and writings , it positions the woman as front and centre of the tale.

The action is pretty much non-stop as we are quickly shown a dysfunctional home life with her mother, her tardiness for work, and a boss who falls so much in love with her ‘lovely hands’ that he proposes marriage. A proposal she ponders and stresses over before saying yes.

Cut straight to the honeymoon hotel and the awkward scene of approaches by a man ‘with fat hands’ she doesn’t love, followed by jumping to the maternity ward where she does not bond with her baby girl.

The ‘young woman’ is next seen in a speakeasy being wooed by a petty criminal who takes her back to his place. It is here that the action slows down for their love-making but the Old Vic’s lights are all switched off to leave us drenched in total blackness and their sex noises. 

By the time our eyes became accustomed to the lack of light the couple were post-coitus. In the dark she declares her love for him and plans a life together, which quite rightly scares him off.

Next, she is on trial for murdering her husband and sent to the electric chair. All the men in her life are depicted in a chain connected to the switch and being the both the blame for her predicament and her executioners.

The nightmarish style of delivering Machinal in a confined and contorted set, where huge shadows are thrown on to the walls, reminiscent of the darker depths of The Third Man but in bright colour rather than monochrome, is not an easy watch but you become transfixed by Sheehy’s performance as she is constantly trying to figure out her world – a world that she has to negotiate on stage through smartly choreographed movement. 

The scenes where she is spitting out a stream of consciousness are mesmerising; and when she is finally caged you feel her anxiety.

By focussing on the woman in this story you get a clear picture of how men have created her throughout an intense production that leaves you rather battered.

My companion, who registers quite high on the spectrum, immediately said, ‘She was definitely autistic.’

‘Not just a bi-polar woman, quick to threaten her own mother and nice-guy husband before deciding to kill him and run off with bad boy boyfriend?’ I asked.

I then got her own stream of consciousness explanation about signs of the neurodivergent: social ineptness, constantly figuring out the world and how it works, a focus on details, feeling incredibly vulnerable, struggle to interpret social situations…

This production of Machinal about the woman’s struggle with sensory overload and the closeness of others then made a lot more sense, which it already had to my fellow theatre-goer. It also highlighted how women would be cast off as mentally unwell for the slightest showing of not letting a patriarchal society force women into corners.

I had wanted Machinal to be a straightforward telling of the Ruth Snyder story, which was – to me – much more interesting, but it would not have been as exciting as this.

Old Vic, The Cut, SE1 8NB until June 1st. Mon – Sat 7.30pm; Wed & Sat matinees 2.30pm. Admission: £13 – £90. 

Booking: www.oldvictheatre.com

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