SOPHIE Treadwell is an unusual animal among American playwrights – a feminist Expressionist who is best known for her play Machinal, which is not some French word as you and I might have thought, but a reference to the machines that control our lives. The play is one of her prolific output of novels and theatrical works.
Treadwell was a journalist covering the trial of Ruth Brown Snyder (and her lover Henry Judd Gray) for the murder of her husband. They went to the electric chair in January 1928. By September the same year, Machinal, inspired by the story of Snyder, was on Broadway. The play was then largely ignored until a revival in the early 1990s at the National Theatre, with Fiona Shaw in the leading role – which was then proclaimed as one of the greatest female roles ever created for the stage.
Now Deborah Warner, artistic director of the intimate Ustinov Studio behind the main auditorium of Bath’s historic Theatre Royal, has engaged opera specialist Richard Jones to direct a new version of the play, which is told in nine sections, with none of the characters named. At its core is The Young Woman, played by Rosie Sheehy in an electrifying performance of astonishing physical and emotional energy and range.
The Ustinov’s stage is made even smaller and more claustrophobic in Hyemi Shin’s design, which cleverly names each of the sections in period lettering raised above the action. The young woman is first seen on her stressful commute to work, in an office where the rest of the staff vie for position on their conveyor-belt of tasks and revile the nervy young woman who has caught the attention of the boss. The sole supporter of a crochety Irish mother, the young woman knows she must marry, even if the thought is repulsive. She’s still hankering after “true love”.
The 12-strong cast doubles up to play a total of 32 characters as the young woman’s story unfolds, inexorably, to its inevitable conclusion.
Machinal is an extraordinary play, deeply rooted in the America of the 1920s but just as relevant today, when “mental health issues” are now part of the bread and butter of our lives, and the issues of working In Real Life rather than Remotely by Zoom are a topic of constant discussion. This production, almost two hours long and played without a break, is often terrifyingly involving, brilliantly performed by a stylishly versatile cast with a central performance you will never forget.
It is on at the Ustinov until 18th November.
Photographs by Foteini Christofilopoulou