Sophie Treadwell was an American news journalist during the 1920s at the time of the sensational New York murder trial of Ruth Snyder, who with her lover, Judd Gray, was charged with killing her husband Albert. Ruth was sentenced to the death penalty by the electric chair.
Inspired by this tragic story, Treadwell wrote her powerful and symbolic play, Machinal - meaning "automatic" or "mechanical" in French - neatly expressing the dependent, domestic goddess and Stepford Wife role of women at that time. Successfully premiered on Broadway in 1928 (starring Clark Gable) , and in London under the title, The Life Machine, it was then largely forgotten until a major revival at the National Theatre, London in 1993.
Oxford University Dramatic Society has now devised a stunning 5-star production of this sparkling gem of an American modern classic. For a Fringe show, staged in a small basement theatre, it is an ambitious achievement.
Around the turn of the 20th century, with stories about women’s social and marital discontent by Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkin Gilman, Katherine Mansfield and Ibsen’s “The Doll’s House,” from which Nora bangs the door on leaving home, this was a crucial time for drama and fiction to voice feminist feelings of being trapped and oppressed in a male-dominated world.
The opening scene of Machinal shows the frenetic buzz and bustle of a commercial office, where half a dozen typists are bashing out paperwork and barking sales figures on the phone, all in a disciplined robotic manner.
Arriving late is a timid young woman, Helen, who sits at her desk, smoothing her hair, looking at her hands, unable to focus. She is summoned to see Mr J, the manager, but she is reluctant to go. No wonder: her life, her future, is about to be taken out of her control by a marriage proposal which she is forced to accept, pushed by financial circumstance and social convention.
Reminiscent of the tone of Tennesee Williams’ masterly studies of family life, Treadwell’s dialogue is all brisk half conversations and pin sharp comments in a series of intimate domestic scenes. We observe Helen first trying to avoid the protective hands of her elderly mother, then later flinching away from the “fat, flabby hands” of her boorish husband.
Nouran Koriem is simply faultless as the quiet and gentle Helen, with a blank stillness across her face as if lost in her own dreamworld, her living nightmare. We sense the unrelenting pressure of her mental turmoil through melodious monologues which describe her growing despair, anger and frustration at her predicament: "Let me alone," "don’t touch me,” "I will not submit."
When she does find a moment of freedom on a night out with friends, we catch a glimpse of the real Helen - independent, confident now to plan an escape from marital entrapment. Her husband is played by Timothy Kiely with a subtle, underhand control, the same kind of menacing streak as shown by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley.
Performed within the windowless bowels of a brick-walled cellar at C Nova, the quick changing scenes between office, speakeasy bar, hotel honeymoon suite, hospital ward and city apartments work well to evoke the dark, claustrophobic mood. Music and sound effects all add to the atmosphere (occasionally spoilt by extraneous music and noise from neighbouring shows.)
The large ensemble cast play numerous roles all crisply performed - accents, characterisations and charisma – to illustrate the jazz age Gatsbyesque glamour and cool, languid theatrical style.
The theatre was packed out on the night I saw Machinal, yet not a cough or flicker of movement was heard from the captivated audience for nearly an hour and a half of this gripping, intense, emotional drama.
Show times: 3 - 26 August, not 13. 7:15pm daily.
Ticket prices: £9.50 - £11.50 (7.50-£9.50)