Theatre review: Machinal

Words by Melissa Blease

Ustinov Studio Bath until 18 November

In 1927, writer, journalist, suffragist and playwright Sophie Treadwell was given a press pass to the trial of New York housewife Ruth Snyder and her lover Henry Judd Gray, both of whom were accused of murdering Snyder’s husband for his insurance policy. The trial turned into a sensational media circus that attracted press coverage across the globe, culminating in Snyder’s very public death by electric chair the following year.

Treadwell didn’t report on the trial. Instead, she read between the lines of the whole, tragic story, perceiving it to be more about a woman betrayed by forces beyond her control, the boorishness of the US judicial system and Snyder’s all-male jury rather than the salacious, infamous case it turned into, revolving around the ‘sins’ of an unfaithful, conniving femme fatale. Almost a century on since it first premiered on Broadway, Machinal remains to be considered a linchpin of modern Expressionist Theatre. 

The programme notes tell us that Treadwell’s intention, with Machinal, was “to create a stage production that will have ‘style’ and, at the same time, by the story’s own innate drama, by the directness of its telling, by the variety and quick changingness of its scenes and the excitement of its sounds, create an interesting play”. Director Richard Jones’ revival has remained respectfully loyal to her brief; his Machinal (part of the second Deborah Warner season at the Ustinov) is strikingly affecting, chillingly disturbing modern theatre at its dazzling best, not easy to watch but definitely unmissable.

In designer Hyemi Shin’s hands, the tiny Ustinov stage feels both vast and claustrophobic: sharply-angled, off-kilter jaundice yellow walls close us into a busy office environment, a sparse kitchen, the bar in a speakeasy, a hotel room, a one-room apartment, a court room, a death chamber – all of them hugely evocative of time, place and mood; all of them stifling, and hostile, and foreboding. 

Scene-setting headings, dropped by ropes, punctuate the drama: Business, Domestic, Honeymoon, Maternal, Prohibited. Benjamin Grant’s ragged, invasive, jarring soundscapes are relentless in their no-peace pace; movement director Sarah Fahie’s smooth, subtle choreography turn banal, everyday routines (a busy office; a ward in ‘the world’s largest maternity hospital’; a courtroom) into balletic mise en place. 

Snyder’s life story, from her early days as a typing pool stenographer living in a New York tenement apartment with her elderly mother to her final moments in the electric chair by way of a loveless marriage to her boss, no-attachment to motherhood and a needy, escapism-driven fling, is sketched out as a stark, no frills/no fun journey; even her character’s name in the programme (not Ruth Snyder, simply Young Woman) represents a bleakly journalistic account of ‘her life’ rather than an emotional retelling. 

In what must surely be an exhausting role, Rosie Sheehy is incessantly angst-ridden and relentlessly anguished. Her almost ceaseless screaming, in many scenes, puts anybody in doubt of her emotional state firmly in their place, while her silences, often punctuating lengthy, freeform, feral ramblings, are as powerful as her cacophonous howls of pain. When she talks, she speaks in the bleak staccato of a subjugated, subordinated desperado. When she eventually allows herself to talk of love, it’s clear that she doesn’t understand love. She’s not easy to watch, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. 

Treadwell/Sheehy’s Young Woman was clearly a women well beyond merely being on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If she was a young woman of today, countless supportive escape routes would be available to her. As it was, the world around her only listened when the newspapers had something prurient, and lewd, and admonishing of an ‘evil woman’ to say.

As her emotionally aloof Husband, however, Tim Frances isn’t really given the depth of backstory that would lead us to understand why Young Woman detests him so much. Bland: yes. A bit boring: most definitely. But we only ever really see him being quite kind to his young wife, and never, ever verging on the cruel, sadistic emotional and physical abuser that the real life Albert Snyder was reputed to be. Similarly, Young Woman‘s Young Man (Pierro Niel-Mee) is only really seen participating in a one-nighter with Young Woman (a beautifully-directed, moving scene mostly played out in total darkness); we don’t feel him in the story, nor do we feel how Young Woman really feels about him. 

Okay, Treadwell’s Machinal didn’t claim to give us chapter and verse of the exact machinations behind Ruth Snyder’s motives for murder or the ensuing outcome – but she made it very clear that the story was inspired by facts. But of those facts…

Ruth Snyder’s real-life lover Henry Judd Gray was complicit in Albert Snyder’s murder before publicly (and viciously) turning against her in the build-up to the trial, presenting himself as a victim. He was convicted of murder and put to death by electric chair in the same prison and on the same day as Ruth Snyder was. But by pretty much writing Gray out of the Machinal story altogether and reducing Albert Snyder to a pipe-and-slippers stereotype of ‘boring husband’, it could be said that Treadwell did exactly what she inadvertently accused both the patriarchy and the tabloid papers of doing: making Albert Snyder’s murder one bad woman’s work. Or was it? Around the world, even today, the jury’s still out…

Showing at Theatre Royal Bath util 18 November: