MACHINAL, Sydney Theatre Company in Wharf 2, November 21-7 December 7, 2013. Photography by Brett Boardman; above: Ivan Donato, Harriet Dyer, Katie McDonald and Terry Serio; right: Harriet Dyer and Brandon Burke.
It's hard to believe that Machinal was written and first staged in 1928, but director Imara Savage has trimmed the sprawling original to 21st century time tastes and one mesmerising act and it's as fresh and relevant as this morning. While seen to be part of American Expressionist theatre, Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell, is unique in telling its story from the female perspective. In so doing it foreshadows many of the concerns of 1960s-70s feminism and also, in its depiction of a dehumanised society, George Orwell's 1984. And also, in this stark, monochromatic setting, Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Treadwell - a journalist as well as prolific playwright - loosely based Machinal on the true story of Ruth Snyder, an American housewife whose various bungled attempts to murder her husband finally succeeded with the connivance of her married lover, corset salesman Judd Gray. Neither was any good at murder or keeping their stories straight, however, and the police soon arrested both. At the age of 33 she was executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in January 1928, an event that was secretly photographed and notoriously published next day in the New York Daily News.
Treadwell's play strongly suggests that her heroine Helen (Harriet Dyer) is as daffy as the day's long - much like poor Ruth Snyder whose exploits caused Damon Runyon to dub her crime, "the dumb-bell murder case - because they're so dumb." But what Treadwell did in her play and Savage brings into sharp focus in this production is the background to the murder that explains the unhappiness and misfortune that might have been Helen/Ruth's true motivation.
As Helen's boss-then-husband Brendan Burke is shockingly good: avuncular, good natured, utterly controlling in the nicest possible way and physically and mentally as appealing as a cane toad. On opening night there were women in the audience who were audible in their distress and revulsion as he merrily bounced Helen on his knee. Few women haven't experienced similar situations - we just didn't commit murder to escape them!
Helen's entrapment isn't merely about a sweetly domineering husband however. Her emotionally manipulative mother (Wendy Strehlow) is only too keen to partake in the marriage's meal ticket. Then there is society's expectations of the young woman - made even less bearable when she gives birth to the baby that represents all her trapped unhappiness. And a simple chair takes on ominous meaning as part of that entrapment.
Through far-fetched tales of adventure, revolution and freedom heard from the lover she meets in a bar (Ivan Donato) Helen gets a sense and fatal taste for what might be. The licence to live that is not hers feels tantalisingly close and the way she decides to try to achieve it symbolises her real powerlessness.
The production is tightly choreographed and funnier than one might imagine possible, given the subject matter. The cast - including Robert Alexander, Matthew Backer, Katie McDonald and Terry Serio - powers the action in an ensemble-chorus and series of vignette-minor roles that is as dramatically compelling as it is visually engaging.
Designer David Fleischer and lighting designer Verity Hampson have collaborated closely in a minimal setting that is simply about light and sharp black shadow that's hugely effective; and composer-sound designer Steve Francis is also integral to the piece.
All in all, Machinal is both entertaining and thought-provoking - how far have we come, or not, since 1928? When is not enough actually too much? And when does laughter turn to tears and rage? There are some answers to be had but many more questions arise in 100 minutes of fascinating theatre. The production and company are terrific and Harriet Dyer is just splendid. Highly recommended.