Rebecca Hall makes Broadway debut in Machinal - theatre review

4.00

American Airlines Theatre, New York

The roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre, located in the heart of Times Square, has quietly become the go-to destination for young British film actresses seeking a stint on the Broadway stage.

Sienna Miller acted there in 2009 in Patrick Marber’s Strindberg adaptation After Miss Julie while a year later Sally Hawkins featured in a production of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. Now Rebecca Hall is headlining a revival of American playwright-journalist Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist melodrama Machinal.

Hall acquits herself admirably playing an unnamed Young Woman in the play which was inspired by the real-life execution of Queens woman Ruth Snyder in 1928 for murdering her husband. Machinal is directed with stylish flair by Lyndsey Turner on the back of her creative staging of Lucy Kirkwood’s geo-political thriller Chimerica in the West End last autumn.

This time around Es Devlin’s revolving rectangular wood-panelled set, which forms the backdrop to Machinal’s nine episodic scenes, is dazzlingly effective (even if it did temporarily malfunction on opening night). The sound of typewriters clattering and camera flashbulbs popping, aided by Jane Cox’s dark lighting design- even the wedding scene is dimly lit- make the case that thanks to technology design can now advance a play’s narrative like never before.

Machinal is one of those lost ahead-of-its-time plays that gets found by successive  generations (Harley Granville-Barker’s Waste is another). Its last major production was a 1993 National Theatre revival directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Fiona Shaw.

I’m not convinced Machinal deserves masterpiece status. The opening scene eerily creates an atmosphere of suffocation as the Young Woman is cast adrift in a sea of commuters in a subway car on the way to her office where she works as a stenographer. She marries her boss (Michael Cumpsty as Husband) and even though she has a child finds herself unable to find happiness in a society that continually stifles her freedom.

But the condensed staccato poetry of the opening scenes establish such a powerful sense of inner repression that Treadwell’s case for the Young Woman to be Everywoman initially suffers from the chill that afflicts her ability to connect with the audience.

As the play progresses, its scenes grow longer and more engrossing. The Young Woman duels with her mother (an excellent Suzanne Bertish), marries, quits her job, commits adultery and is executed. By the time the Young Woman meets her lover (Morgan Spector) in a Speakeasy, Machinal has you hooked and doesn’t loosen its hold on the senses until its shattering climax. It’s to Turner’s credit that she re-creates Treadwell’s soulless, mechanized society in which stifling ideas prevail over people without draining the humanity from her characters.

The unravelling of Hall’s tormented psyche is gripping. She’s particularly impressive in two rushed monologues where she intimately debates with herself whether society’s expectations are at variance with her own desires.

Machinal is a good play that has been greatly staged in New York by a director and leading lady both new to Broadway. Machinal hasn’t been seen on Broadway for 86 years but on this evidence it will take considerably less time for Hall and Turner to be invited back here.

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