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Review of Machinal at the Old Vic: A Suffocating Symphony of Existential Despair

Rated 🍯🍯🍯🍯

Vintage gelatin silver print of a woman being executed in the electric chair. This image was taken on January 12, 1928 and reproduced on the front page of the "NY Daily News" on the morning of Feb. 13, 1928.
A chilling photo of Ruth Snyder on the electric chair on 12 Jan 1928, secretly photographed by journalist Tom Howard with a miniature camera and published on the NY Daily News the next day. Snyder was executed for the murder of her husband and inspired Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play, Machinal.

From the moment the curtain rises on "Machinal" at the Old Vic, the audience is thrust into an intensely claustrophobic setting that mirrors the protagonist’s suffocating world.

The opening scene, set in a crowded subway, is a masterclass in creating atmosphere that is designed not just to depict, but to make the audience feel the congestion and oppression that define the play's central themes. The proximity of the actors on stage, crowding around, creates an almost unbearable sense of enclosure that effectively sets the stage for the psychological drama that unfolds.

Rosie Sheehy's Commanding Despair

The show’s pacing initially seems sluggish as the main character's presence and plight are slowly unveiled amidst a backdrop of mundane office gossip and mechanical routines. However, this changes dramatically with the arrival of Rosie Sheehy, who plays the Young Woman with an intensity that is nothing short of captivating! This is no exaggeration, dear friends. Sheehy embodies a restless energy that speaks volumes of her character’s internal turmoil. The very act of existing appears to be a painful ordeal for her character, and the actress exudes this torture almost effortlessly that it's very easy to forget she's acting. She makes every moment she is on stage charged with raw emotion and palpable tension. Her performance is particularly mesmerizing during her soliloquies, where she unveils the depth of her character’s despair, showcasing a crippling blend of frustration, helplessness, and anxiety.

This excerpt from Sophie Treadwell's "Machinal" is the bee's absolute favourite. It illustrates the protagonist’s profound existential exhaustion and disillusionment with the mechanistic life imposed on her.

"Vixen crawled under the bed—way back in the corner under the bed—they were all drowned—puppies don't go to heaven—heaven—golden stairs—long stairs—too long—long golden stairs—climb those golden stairs—stairs—stairs—climb—tired—too tired—dead—no matter—nothing matters—dead." (Treadwell, Sophie. Machinal. Episode 4, Maternal)

Philosophical Depths and Social Commentary

The play's exploration of societal constraints and existential angst is vivid and thought-provoking. While "Machinal" effectively captures the oppressive forces of society and the workplace, it subtly challenges the audience to reflect on the less visible, yet oppressive societal expectations imposed on individuals, particularly women. The lack of explicit external tribulations in the Young Woman's life—such as poverty or overt abuse—poses a challenge in empathizing with her plight for some viewers. This absence, however, can be interpreted as a critique of the invisible yet omnipresent societal norms that can be as constricting and destructive as more visible forms of oppression.

Contradictions and Culminations

The ending of the play, where the Young Woman remains restless even as she faces her imminent death, initially seemed inconsistent to me. One might expect that she would find peace, or at least resignation, in her fate. Instead, her continued restlessness could be seen as a final, desperate grasp at agency, or perhaps an ultimate realization of her unfulfilled desires and unescaped constraints. This restlessness invites the audience to ponder the complexities of human emotion and the instinctive drive towards life, even in the face of death.

Conclusion: A Reflective Discomfort

"Machinal" at the Old Vic is a powerful portrayal of a woman’s struggle against the mechanistic forces of society. The performance by Rosie Sheehy is a standout, not merely for her acting prowess but for her ability to convey profound psychological pain in a way that is almost too real to bear. This production not only entertains but also invites a deep, uncomfortable reflection on the norms we often accept as simply part of the human condition.

Four stars!


Watched April 2024 at The Old Vic, London


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