Machinal: Rosie Sheehy astonishes in this neglected 1920s classic

Astounding: Rosie Sheehy with the company
Astounding: Rosie Sheehy with the company - Manuel Harlan

Blasted across the front page of the New York Daily News in 1928, it remains one of the most haunting photos of all time: Ruth Snyder in the electric chair, a black hood over her head as several thousand volts charge through her as punishment for her husband’s murder. Six months later, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal premiered on Broadway: a play inspired by Snyder’s fate, but rather than dramatising the tabloid story of gory mariticide, it instead depicts an everywoman character driven to mental breakdown by the rigmarole of daily New York life.

Nearly a century after that, the Old Vic is staging a production of Machinal, first seen in Bath last year, which centres on an astounding lead performance from Rosie Sheehy as the unnamed “young woman”. At first she slopes across the stage with a wide-eyed expression, in a blue spring dress at odds with the besuited office workers who speak and move around her in unison. She absorbs the cruelness of the city to the point where she erupts into manic rages, which manifest in the exclamation of disjointed words that recall her recent trauma (and remind us of the play’s Expressionist roots).

There is terrifying athleticism to these eruptions from Sheehy, her body twisting as she cries out. But there is also a subtlety: the climaxes see no obvious switch in her performance mode, instead appearing as the inevitable, natural outcome of what we have seen before. It is a masterclass in how to play a character at the end of her tether.

Sheehy is matched with a stellar supporting cast: Tim Frances does well to make her husband seem a warm and avuncular figure yet, at the same time, clearly bad news for her while Pierro Niel-Mee excels at making her lover the Young Man a slightly slippery charmer. There is clear value to having Lucy Hind on board as intimacy director: a striking dynamism exists between the Young Woman and Man in the bedroom, adding depth and believability to their illicit connection.

Hyemi Shin’s design centres on a shallow, yellow-panelled stage, whose sparseness creates a productive tension with the internal mania evident in Sheehy’s performance. Benjamin Grant’s sound design amplifies elements like the click of the typewriter in the office, babies crying in neighbouring apartments, or the pneumatic drill heard in the hospital, all of which allows us further inside the mind of the Young Woman. Adam Silverman’s ominous lighting with shadows melodramatically emphasised creates an overwhelming sense of the world around.

Rosie Sheehy in Machinal
Rosie Sheehy in Machinal - Manuel Harlan

Feminist or political readings are certainly possible, but director Richard Jones’ aim seems rather to focus on painting a remarkably dark portrait of mental torment. Striking moments of dark comedy help to balance the pessimism, while a pervading sense of curiosity about the human mind helps ensure that events feel more to be a tragedy by historical outcome, rather than by theatrical design.

The omission of an interval means that the narrative feels structurally a little untethered, with scenes listlessly building upon each other with an unclear direction of travel. This adds somewhat to the play’s pervading sense of anxiety, but also means that climatic scenes towards the end feel to arrive somewhat suddenly. Nevertheless, this is a small qualm in an exceptional production that proves Machinal has lost none of its potency.

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