Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal was written and set in 1920s America. But Georgina Deri’s Corpus Playroom adaptation brings it to the present: this sensual and sensuous tragedy of a repressed and oppressed young woman echoes contemporary issues of domestic abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace. “Going to work, returning home. Going to work, returning home.” That’s all there is for Helen Jones. With no alternative, she is roped into a repulsive marriage with her boss, from which she never recovers.
It’s a noisy play – thanks to the work of sound designer Sam MacDonald. In the opening office scene, the furious thudding of the typewriter keys, the persistent whining of the telephone, and the robotic responses of the female workers creates an unsettling cacophony. Even the melodious jazz that echoes gently in the later bedroom scenes interrupts the fragile musical harmony between the illicit lovers, Helen and Richard. Sounds are mangled in the same way that the voices of the protagonists are strained and eventually silenced.
Inge-Vera Lipsius’ Helen is compelling: her speech is jagged, her movements frenzied, and her aura jittery, encapsulating the panicked status of women in this period. During her impassioned monologues, she clings onto her flimsy garments; she shudders at her own stuttering staccato words which tumble out of her mouth. It is sometimes difficult to decipher what she is trying to say, as phrases clump together and pronunciation falters, but this breathless performance serves an artistic purpose. She is trembling, alienated from her own physicality, exposed to her husband’s aggressive sexual appetite, and quite simply, afraid. She mumbles “don’t touch me please”, but she is helpless. She is enclosed in this claustrophobic prison of forced intimacy.
However, these powerful strands of the play – both the performance and the staging – did not really culminate into something ‘spectacular’. The climactic interrogation at the court scene – aside from supporting actress Vee Tames’ precision and energy – dragged on for a little too long; by contrast, the love affair was too abrupt – Richard’s character (and his accent) never had the chance to develop, and was thus slightly lacking in charisma. Each scene was marked by a type-written title, but this only accentuated the fragmentary and choppy nature of the movement through the plot. Black-outs were put to better use, but these also prevented the audience from interacting with the characters at a deeper level.
Despite impassioned and mature performances, Machinal never quite escaped the feeling of a university production. The components of the play were strong: the production as a whole undeniably has potential. “The machine is out of order”, someone says. Machinal is most definitely not “out of order”, but something in the machine was slightly out of place.