Left – Harriet Dyer. Cover – Katie McDonald, Harriet Dyer and Robert Alexander. Photos – Brett Boardman
Five crisp boxes of light. We’re faced head on by an indicative army of office workers: grey suit pants. White shirts. Ties. Relentlessly click-clacking retractable pens as though the action was to perforate the air with visible punctuation. A man’s shadow in a brightly lit doorway announces an important arrival. A woman gingerly finds her way to her seat, to the job where she awaits an endless workload, interrogation and the grinning advances of a much older boss.
First produced on Broadway in America in 1928, Machinal by Sophie Treadwell is a piece of American expressionist theatre which follows the spiritual awakening of a young woman (Harriet Dyer) who is pushing against the established expectations of an emotionally mechanised society. An invalid mother (Wendy Strehlow) who encourages pragmatism over romance in her daughter’s pursuit of marriage, seals Helen’s trajectory in to a life of duty and compromise. Before long, Helen has married an affectionate and doting husband (Brandon Burke) whom she is repulsed by, and suffering from anxiety, dread and foreboding. A chance encounter at a bar finds her tumbled and tumbling around with a lover (Ivan Donato) a man with a dark past his conscience has been easily reconciled with.
Here at the Sydney Theatre Company, director Imara Savage has edited and transported the play into a contemporary “no-man’s land” harnessing the very simple chapters of an inevitable decent into a dark decision. The ensemble cast supporting the scenes (Matthew Backer, Katie McDonald, Terry Serio, Robert Alexander) create a kaleidoscopic world of monochromatic judgement. At each pivot point the surrounding context repositions our sympathies towards the young woman and we find ourselves siding with her plight.
Presented with one of the most inventive, spectacular and sculptural lighting designs (Verity Hampson) on a Sydney stage in some time, Savage has directed a fluid and well-crafted story. The light shifts in colour and shape and form with an angular intensity that both isolates and contains the performance. Here the light also becomes a character casting a judgement across the action: a winking glare from six fluorescent tubes, a series of rigid boxes, the pitch of the roof of the house, an electric chair glowing with righteous power.
Performances are taut and direct, Harriet Dyer finding an easy and charming childlike place balances the drudgery of duty as wife and unwilling mother, Brandon Burke slides easily into the skin of the smug and un-self aware husband. Ivan Donato pierces the production with all the confidence of a well-practiced philanderer. However, there is a very clear and unambiguous chord of intention and agenda coursing through this reading of the piece – at no time do we condemn the woman for her actions. Instead society is blamed – but we are not implicated in that blame we are instead silently nodding along with the choice. I am left considering what action Treadwell’s Machinal wants us (as the audience) to take? After nearly one hundred years of production, it is a frightening notion that the play is still “timely.”
This is an interesting portrait of a person, but a powerful exploration of personal choice in the face of wider societal expectations. Savage has nipped and tucked Treadwell’s play in a fierce light sabre cutting though a fairly dark view of social conditioning.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Sophie Treadwell
Director Imara Savage
Venue: Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, The Wharf, Pier 4/5 Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay
Dates: 21 November – 7 December 2013
Tickets: $30 (fees apply)
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | sydneytheatre.com.au