EFR - Reviews of Machinal

Machinal

Fri 3rd – Sun 26th August 2012

reviews

April Elisabeth Pierce

at 09:15 on 10th Aug 2012

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If the phrase “high expressionism” makes you cringe pre-emptively, it’s because the genre is extremely difficult to master. Frenzied displays of emotion, sequences inspired by the biblical stages of Christ’s suffering on the cross, clipped speech and heightened pathos can very easily dissolve into hysteric sensationalism. But the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s iteration of Sophie Treadwell’s 'Machinal' was anything but sensationalist; it was flawless sophistication. The performance is unmissable.

Although this C-venue room is unapologetically difficult to locate, the play is worth a little sleuthing. Once you’ve wound your way down a number of narrow corridors into the damp basement of the building, you’re in for a treat. Thankfully, the director (Jack Sain) has worked around the eccentricities of the venue, incorporating its awkward features into his interpretation.

Inspired by the case of murderess Ruth Snyder (who was executed in 1928, the same year the show premiered on Broadway), the story deals with a woman named Helen’s struggles with the injustices and patriarchy of modern institutions. Her plight for freedom is enhanced by clinical and gothic depictions of state institutions, which are sharply distinguished from the vibrant life of Harlem speakeasies and “the world beyond”. Internal agony is contrasted with social norms of the age, and the external world appropriately features a chorus of gaunt and pale-faced courtroom oglers, cruel doctors, and sterile, shallow office workers. Allusions to psych wards were made through the set design, which subtly hinted at a decline into madness.

The audience at 'Machinal' leaned forward expectantly throughout this performance, wholly engrossed in Helen’s torment. Exceptional acting on the part of Helen’s husband (Tim Kiely) and mother (Caitlin McMillan) further emphasized Helen’s pain. Scenes between Helen and her close kin were haunting and fully sympathetic. Tim Kiely’s brilliant representation of the clueless, aphorism-obsessed husband was spot on; in her moment of need, Tim’s quips and jabs are quick and cutting. Caitlin’s New York accent was remarkably believable. The mechanical body language of other actors, sharp transitions, and humorous platitudes all combined in a perfect alchemy of mania, which simmered to a boil in the final scenes.

“She’s artistic”, “she’s inefficient” ... “life is breath and breath is life” “then what is death?” “no breath”. Once you’ve adjusted to the machine-like quality of its dialogue, 'Machinal' will certainly thrill and disturb you. Through the decades, the case of one misunderstood woman in 1928 still has the ability to profoundly shock and upset.

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Elizabeth O'Connor

at 10:02 on 10th Aug 2012

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Sophie Treadwell's Expressionist play 'Machinal' is a brave choice from Oxford University Dramatic Society. First performed in 1928, the play was controversial and innovative in its attempts to humanise the story of modern day Tess D'Urberville Ruth Snyder (renamed Helen in the play), but by now its twenties shock factor has started to fade and it almost finds itself a little outdated. The play's passionate refrain, "I will not submit!", nowadays sounds more like something out of an extremely unsubtle Ginsberg poem than a poignant expression of individuality. Against this, however, this production delivers a slick and precocious performance with lots of promise.

From the outset, 'Machinal' is a very good-looking production, and credit must go to director Jack Sain for creating a stage space that is both stark and intricately stylised. The bleak, overruling white was a powerful yet subtle portrayal of oppression, and scene changes in which Helen is dressed by the other actors further patterns the production with powerfully simple imagery of control and loss. The scenes mirror one another in layout and image, and the repetition of Helen sitting opposite another character in exactly the same manner at different points of her life is visually striking. Down to the last detail the production masterfully created the greatest possible sense of isolation around Helen, and it was an impressively mature and intelligent artistic decision.

The acting is consistently strong from the entire ensemble. Accents can be the downfall of many a solid student show, but here a New Jersey drawl was perfectly executed by every cast member. Barney Iley-Williamson and Ella Waldman delivered especially natural and intriguing performances, and I found them both utterly captivating to watch. The lead character of Helen is a tough role to play, especially for such a young actor, and Nouran Koriem gave a lovely sense of the character's naivety and charming bashfulness. Missing, unfortunately, was any indication of her inner strength and intelligence to make her demise believable. The company's blurb for the show describes her as 'headstrong', but I found her to be a little simpering at times. I would emphasise, however, that I make this criticism in the face of Koriem's clear talent - I have no doubt that her performance could be stunning with a little tweaking.

The actors also occasionally tripped over the stream-of-consciousness style of the dialogue, typical of the expressionist style. Whilst the court scene was incredible in its fervent electricity and immediacy, the earlier scene between Helen and her mother seemed preoccupied with speeding up the pace of the dialogue rather than concentrating on the meaning and motivation behind the words.

'Machinal' is easily one of the best student shows I have seen at the Fringe this year - it has a mature and sharp understanding of both the tragedy and black comedy of the piece, and its execution is inventive yet controlled.

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