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Sophie Treadwell

Old Vic Theatre (11 April – 1 June 2024)

Review by Karla Williams


Inspired by the real-life story of Ruth Snyder, who killed her husband in 1920s America, Machinal follows Young Woman (played by Rosie Sheehy), a stenographer who marries a much older and wealthy Husband (Tim Francis). Husband is also Young Woman’s boss, and she marries him at the insistence of Mother (Buffy Davis) despite not loving him and his touch making her flinch. But the expectations of being a wife and motherhood leave Young Woman overwhelmed, and the machinery of life begins to grind her down. She starts an affair with a man she meets in a bar, who killed a man when escaping from Mexico. His story inspires her with a deep longing to be free, and Young Woman murders her husband.

A highpoint of American Expressionist theatre when first performed in 1928, director Richard Jones’ production uses a mix of physical theatre and choreography to tell its story, and the play shines most during these moments. In an early scene, Young Woman communicates her desire not to be married in a visceral and moving exploration of suffocation using exceptional choreography. Equally, the final scene depicting Young Woman’s execution  brilliantly evokes how even in death she is forced to submit. However the pace of the drama is inconsistent and there were, several moments when I wasn’t fully absorbed, and my engagement began to waver.

Perhaps in part this was due to Sophie Treadwell’s script, which focuses more on how Young Woman feels than the specifics of why she chose murder. In the real-life story – Treadwell was also a journalist – Ruth Synder’s husband was physically and mentally abusive. While Husband frequently gaslights Young Woman and fails to pick up on her unhappiness, I would have like more insight as to why killing her husband proves the only option for self-liberation.

Designed by Hyemi Shin, the set was one of the production’s highlights, with the large Old Vic stage reduced to a small yellow triangle which further highlighted the themes of constriction and oppression. Deploying its minimalism, the set transformed into an office, a hotel, a bar and a court room with imaginative ease and ingenuity. Particularly the 1920s style headers which included ‘To Business’, ‘Prohibited’ and ‘Domestic’ which were replaced with each set change by a member of the cast.   

The ensemble cast supports a sensitive performance from Rosie Sheehy who communicates the role of Young Woman with emotional authenticity, blending experience of suffocation, anger, and oppression with a childlike naivety. Written in 1928, Machinal provides an empathetic examination of the relentless machinery of life, of expectation and convention. Yet alongside its depictions of oppression are scenes that feel superfluous. The drama doesn’t fully hit the mark, despite great potential.