Machinal only runs for 90 minutes, but you feel the uneasy churn of every single one, as it moves inexorably towards its grim climax. An acute portrait of a lonely woman who works in a typing pool and her fateful marriage to her boss, it unfolds in nine 'episodes' that offer an impressionistic - and impressively staged - series of vignettes from her life.
As such, directors and designers are tempted to turn this domestic tragedy into an artful series of installations: when it was last revived on Broadway in 2014 by the British team of director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin, Ben Brantley noted in his review for the New York Times that Rebecca Hall, as the young woman, ‘must struggle to hold her own against an overbearing co-star’. He then cited the offending co-star as Devlin's ‘revolving, scene-stealing set, which portrays a juggernaut of doom - i.e., modern urban existence - that flattens all in its path’.
Now another female director/designer team - Natalie Abrahami and Miriam Buether - offer an equally dazzling series of scenes, with multiple perspectives provided in a large angled mirror that dominates the stage and reflects its artfully arranged locations back to us. But as much as one is impressed by the stage management that conjures this all so smoothly, it is the numbed human heart at its centre that belongs to the despairing Young Woman, played by Emily Berrington, that mostly commands our attention.
There's a filmic fluidity to a wordless scene that opens the play in which we watch the daily oppressive grind of her commute to the office. We also visit her at home with her mother, as they share a dinner of baked potatoes, and her seduction by the boss she reluctantly marries and then a lover who shows her that there could be more to her life; we also meet her young daughter.
It's a gruelling but gripping play that's not easy to watch, about a life that's even harder to live.
Photo credit Johan Persson