There is a triumvirate of greatness running through Machinal, opening the second season of Deborah Warner’s Ustinov reign; there is Sophie Treadwell’s classic expressionist play of 1928, matched here with Richard Jones’ highly stylised, high-sheen direction and Rosie Sheehy’s skin flailing performance as The Young Woman in a performance that confirms her as one of our next great actors. This trinity reminds us that the Ustinov lays claim to be the most exciting performance space in the Southwest, if not the country.
Treadwell was a prolific journalist and playwright, but it is Machinal that is remembered today. It is rarely away from the stage; the Almeida produced it as recently as 2018. Its familiarity can cloud how ahead of the curve it was. Taking inspiration from the true life case of Ruth Snyder who was tried and then executed for killing her husband accompanied by her lover, Treadwell plunges us into a New York as a mechanical whirl, humans as automatons; locking in, clocking out; where love and marriage do not equate and what little pleasure there is can only be found in prohibition speakeasies.
It is little wonder that the young woman (later given the generic name Helen Jones) needs to escape from the beginning, gasping for air as she rides the subway into work. Across nine scenes we see this misfit fight with her joyless mother, marry her boss, have a baby, meet a lover, murder her husband, be put on trial, and then eventually placed into the chair for her crime. What makes Treadwell’s play extraordinary is its form, plunging us into a symphony of voices, jagged and disconnected, full of cliché and repeated motifs, and lets us see the stifling effect it has on a woman out of sync. Lines are short and jagged, shards of glass ready to plunge deep into skin. It’s only when the woman is in her tryst with her lover that staccato becomes legato. We may be able to see that in Pierro Niel-Mee, we have a chancer who plays women like cards, but for a fleeting moment, it offers her an escape route.
Jones, our foremost opera director, brings his epic vision into studio form and it works a treat. Recently, his Pygmalion was accused of blurring the intent behind George Bernard Shaw’s play, but here he evokes a perfect blend of theatricality and brings Treadwell’s play blazingly to life. Set, costume, lighting, and sound fuse with a heightened acting style that magnetises from the first scene, as we watch Sheehy trapped in the middle of a crowded subway train. Nicky Gillibrand’s black and white costumes clash stunningly with Hyemi Shin’s yellow-painted set, a drab society contrasting with the happiness that seems a long way away from its anti-heroine.
Sheehy’s performance is astonishing. Though Jones doesn’t place much trope on society being the crusher of this woman, she is clearly on edge from our first encounter and it’s clear from her responses to the situations around her that she is neurodiverse, he instead plunges us into the mind of one about to explode. Sheehy, in a drab blue dress, her eyes never far from tears, suggests one who doesn’t know her place in the world. Yet in her volcanic anger, as she turns against her mother, in her writhing as the sound of drilling radiates around her head, we see a woman in desperate need of help and with nowhere to turn.
Sheehy, who has made inroads into our foremost national companies over the past years, gives a startlingly brave and committed performance here, her screams as she realises she is about to go to the chair will be etched in my mind for years to come. It’s a performance that suggests the promise is over and we have a stage great on our hands.
Niel-Mee is a convincing lothario and there is sterling support work as well from Daniel Abelson as a Southern defense lawyer, Tim Frances as the skin-crawl-inducing husband, and Buffy Davis as the Irish mother, dropping potatoes onto the plate and insisting love and marriage have very little to do with each other.
Warner’s Ustinov seasons feel like a budgeting nightmare in terms of getting the sums to work, here there are 12 actors playing to an audience of under 200 but from this critics’ perspective, I hope the partnership lasts. Machinal is one of the great theatre nights of the decade.