Review: Machinal, Old Vic

Richard Jones’ truly striking production of Machinal makes for a challenging and creatively inspiring time at the Old Vic

“Aren’t you glad it’s a girl”

There’s clearly something about the play Machinal that brings something special out of directors. Natalie Abrahami delivered extraordinary work at the Almeida back in 2018 and now, transferring to the Old Vic from the significantly more intimate Ustinov Studio at Theatre Royal Bath, Richard Jones casts his own inimitable style on Sophie Treadwell’s expressionistic drama.

Most striking from the off is Hyemi Shin’s lurid set design, constantly jarring in all its harshness but as the play progresses, Benjamin Grant’s sound and Adam Silverman’s lighting reveal themselves as equally revelatory in the way they carve out the unnerving space in which this troubling story plays out. At nearly two hours it is a lot, but it is a challenge that is ultimately rewarding.

Rosie Sheehy matches this endeavour with an astonishing performance as Young Woman, based on Ruth Snyder whose true crime case forms the backbone of the play. The headline is that she killed her husband and was sentenced to death but Treadwell (and Jones) are much more interested depicting the society that might have pushed her to such extremes.

She’s all rough edges and confrontation but equally so firmly under the patriarchal thumb that she’s rendered silent (this is where shifts in light and sound are so fantastically effective at switching us into her interior life). And as we push to the violently distressing end, the production’s stylised imagery cleaves towards the biblical, such is its profundity here.

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