THEATRE / The soul of the machine: Paul Taylor reviews Machinal at the National Theatre

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The Independent Culture
MACHINAL: the title of Sophie Treadwell's 1928 play gives audiences fair warning that they're not in for two-hours-plus of pastoral placidity. It's the French term for 'mechanical' or 'automatic' and Treadwell's drama amounts to a savage indictment of a hard, soulless world of mechanisation and money worship. But Luddism is the last thing to which you feel tempted watching Stephen Daldry's stupendous National Theatre revival.

Indeed, the whole proceedings could be said to be embroiled in an exhilarating irony, for, as it is staged here (using Ian MacNeil's awesome designs), Treadwell's damning expressionist vision of the metropolis can't help but impress itself on you as an uplifting celebration of the vast mechanical resources of the Lyttleton.

These have to be seen to be believed - from the stunning moments near the start when the revolving cubicles of a packed cacophonous office loom in from the back of the stage, like some bureaucratic circle of hell that Dante had overlooked, all the way through to the stark electric chair scene when the steely intestines of the Lyttleton's nether regions are bleakly exposed. In between, truck-stages and hydraulic lifts, false walls, floors and all manner of traps work overtime to create a dark phantasmagoria. Ceilings that do everything but stay put are becoming something of a Daldry thumbprint: here, the trial scene is brilliantly evoked when the huge collage-grid overhead tilts and descends to become a steep, oppressive incline rearing up behind the accused, the judge and officials poking through flaps in the cage. It looks more a prison than a courthouse.

It must be clear by now that this is a play that deliberately confuses inner and outer reality. The big question, though, is whether it abuses this convention in a determined effort to load the dice, overwhelmingly, in favour of its Everywoman protagonist: a young New York female who marries her despised boss so as to be able to support her mother, gets a brief taste of freedom in a romantic affair, and is later executed for the murder of her spouse. She is supposed to be a representative example of the way women are constricted and crushed by a system evolved to suit men. But she comes across, both in the writing and in Fiona Shaw's splendid, unsparing performance, as such a congenital martyr to nerves and high-strung fastidiousness as to constitute a special case.

Again and again, episodes are presented from her point of view. Thus, because maternity is so terrifying to her, she is seen gagging in a hospital room that would compare less than favourably with a cell in a Third World prison. You're in danger of forgetting that as the wife of a rich man, she would at least have been suffering in some material comfort. Her impotence is overstressed. In such thrillingly skewed scenes as the one where the mismatched married couple keep (literally) drifting apart in mid-air, I began to side with her crassly materialist, but not unkindly husband (John Woodvine). During the trial, she recoils from the idea that she could have opted for divorce rather than murder: 'I couldn't hurt him like that]' If this is female sensitivity, God protect us from it.

Beckett, Pinter and Mamet are pre-echoed in the staccato telegraphese, nagging rhythms and jangly cliche-ridden repetition of dialogue. But though the play is well worth reviving, it's the production that is the masterpiece.

In rep. Box office: 071-928 2252.