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Sydney Theatre Company presents MACHINAL by Sophie Treadwell in Wharf 2 , Hickson Road.

Machinal, the play by Sophie Treadwell, was first produced on Broadway in 1928. Ms Treadwell was an investigative journalist and writer. This play was inspired, loosely based, on an actual murder case celebre of the period, that of Ruth Snyder. Ruth Snyder was convicted for the murder of her husband, and along with her lover, was executed at Sing Sing Prison – she was the first woman to be executed in the electric chair, since 1899. The case was a newspaper sensation and became historically infamous with the publication of a photograph in the New York Daily News, of Ruth Snyder being actually electrocuted. The play premiered eight months after the execution.

For this production of MACHINAL, the Director, Imara Savage, has trimmed and cut the original play to succinctly fit her needs: 

paring it back to the bare essentials … to ask questions about the female experience, social responsibility and the right of each individual to self-determination. 

The original play demands were made up by 17male and 10 female characters. Ms Savage has, at the STC, a company of only 8 actors! 

(I noted in the program:

The rights to Sophie Treadwell’s works are owned by the Roman Catholic Church of Tucson, a Corporation Sole, from whom production rights must be obtained. 

I wonder are the owners aware of the alterations, and have approved them, since giving the rights?)


An anti-realist movement in the arts, exemplified by the films of the German Expressionists: Robert Wiene’s THE CABINET OF CALIGARI (1920) and F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1923), was boldly taken up and explored by some American Dramatists in the 1920’s: e.g. THE HAIRY APE by Eugene O’Neill (1922) and THE ADDING MACHINE by Elmer Rice (1923). Sophie Treadwell’s  MACHINAL, is another, that Michael Patterson describes as: 

a powerful Expressionist treatment of a woman whose crime appears almost justified. The clamour of contemporary technology, the routines of urban life, and, above all, the oppression of her gender, drive her to make her futile bid for freedom and fulfilment. [1] 

The character,  Helen Jones, travels through a seres of ‘stations’ (an office, a flat, a hotel, a hospital, a speakeasy, a furnished room, a drawing room, a courtroom, a prison.) with characters devoid of individual psychology, revealed by symbolic or non-realistic dialogue, exploring the alienation of the individual in a world of technology and capital.

An inventive and spare, economic, set and costume design by David Fleischer – this is , for me, the best work he has created this year, in fact, since the last time he was in this space with LITTLE MERCY. Maybe discipline of budget unlocks his abilities to their best imaginative and theatrical resources! – collaborating with a brilliant Lighting design and execution by Verity Hampson – this, too, matches the invention and skill of her work on LITTLE MERCY –  although, I believe her work in many theatres across Sydney this year is nearly always exemplary. Steve Francis, Composer and Sound Designer adds an indelible and appropriate invention to the soundtrack of this world – it creates, both, cues for imaginative invention of the architectural spaces of the ‘stations’, and also, powerful aural abstractions of atmosphere and emotion. All the above design elements are astoundingly effective to the intentions of the writer.
The company of 8 actors: Robert Alexander, Matthew Backer, Brandon Burke, Ivan Donato, Katie Macdonald, Terry Serio,Wendy Strehlow and Harriet Dyer are almost immaculate in all their tasks. Their highly stylised and disciplined physical and vocal work grabs us viscerally with the sheer concentration of assuredness of an in-tune ensemble from the very first scene. The demarcation of the company’s many characters is thrillingly, pin-point accurate, and has no ‘fat’ of indulgence – clear, passionate identifiable portraits of story telling action and needs. E.g., the population of the office of the first scene: Stenographer, a high heeled pink pertness by Mr Alexnder; ‘wacko’-hip Filing Clerk by Mr Backer; the friendly office gossip Telephone Girl by Katie MacDonald; and Adding Clerk by Terry Serio are a chorus that surround the smarmy Boss, Mr Jones – a brilliantly astute creation by Brandon Burke – and the heroine of MACHINAL, the submissive good girl, Helen Jones played by Harriet Dyer, seize us in the very first scene with breathtaking panache. In the second scene, Wendy Strehlow’s Mother in disciplined postures of activity (around the peeling of a potato)  reveals a complex set of strategies to dominate her daughter; Ivan Donato as The Lover in the central scene, is sublime in the masculine manipulations of his sex to seduce and court Helen Jones. Mr Donato and Ms Dyer create a duet of theatre that is mesmerising in its delicate beauty, both, in its simmering, musical sexuality, and muscular physical sub-texts. (Worth the cost of the ticket, alone!) The speakeasy scene, too, has the sure hand of every artist involved – designers, actors, director – in creating a world of rich imagination and variety: the setting, lighting and orchestration and skill of the actors sketch economically and brilliantly a reality and atmosphere of a ‘twenties seedy bar straight out of the Time-Life photographs and/or paintings (say, Edward Hopper) of the period.  It is impressive work.

Harriet Dyer, carrying the weight of the protagonist through every scene, is astounding, for most of the night. Her vocal and physical work is supported by adept and rich inner thoughts: the nervousness, the confusion, the revulsion, the romance, the terror, and the wily trajectories of Helen’s external and internal reactions and intentions are a feast of detailed accuracy and creative economy.What resources of knowledge Ms Dyer must employ to bring Helen Jones to life for us is a confronting ‘magic’ for us to respect. It is a remarkable performance of stamina , if, nothing else – and, there is much else to appreciate. 

It has been a year of wonderful performances from the women of the theatre this year: e.g. Helen Thomson (MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION); Angela Lansbury (DRIVING MISS DAISY); Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, Elizabeth Debecki (THE MAIDS), Susan Prior (SMALL AND TIRED); Eryn Jean Norvill (ROMEO AND JULIET); Cherry Jones (THE GLASS MENAGERIE): Anastasia Hille (THE EFFECT). Ms Dyer’s, Helen Jones, is, up there on my list, beside them, too.
The production is some 90-minutes long without interval, and I did detect a loss of concentration from us, the audience, during the Court Scene – was it the length of the act? Should we have been given an interval? Or, has the method of the direction to sustain our commitment not completely solved the artificial abstraction of the choral speaking of the court characters in that penultimate scene? Is it the disappointing costuming of the legal fraternity that undermines, throws  our concentration?  I felt the performance began to derail here – restless stirrings and slumping in seats, I observed. And then, what followed in the ultimate scene, where the director and the actor seemed to display, for me, too tellingly, their empathic political sense of outrage for the ‘justice’ meted out to Helen Jones, and collaboratively tipped, the performance into a shouted emotional ‘sentimentality’, breaking the fine control of the Brechtian ‘distancing effect’ that they had maintained so skilfully for the rest of the production. We were been told what to feel, in those moments, instead of being invited to continue to endow the truths of the play with our own empathies. – the catharsis of the major event of the play was experienced by the actor  and we, the audience, relatively, watched the result  of the action, rather than being an active part of it’s invention.
Still, this is a very fine production of a very provocative and interesting period play – I thoroughly recommend you try to see it (it finishes on December 7th). At a cost of only $30 plus a gold coin for the program, a bargain, indeed.
P.S.  It is a pity that the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) revival of MACHINAL, this neglected play by this, mostly, unknown female writer, does not feel it appropriate to print a biography of the playwright in the program. There is an extensive note from the Director, Ms Savage, who points out the remarkable place, she feels, the writer has in theatrical dramaturgy, with admiring enthusiasm (and manages to refer to Sophie Treadwell only as Treadwell), alongside a Program note of her own career, as well as all the other Creatives of this production. However, there is, evidentially, no space for the WRITER or her history to be recorded in this program!  Is it really a wonder that women artists are left-out-of-history still, when this can happen? There is a biographical note pinned to the notice board downstairs on the way to the toilet, or, the bar, I noticed!!!

Now, I mention it only in passing, and just for history’s sake, but this company do not use American dialects, despite the particular vocabulary, and geographical references, and, of course, the  reference to the electric chair – an American manner of execution, the climatic imagery of the play – not an Australian method of execution or image, I think. ( I know, I know: “Whatever, Kevin J!”) And, I imagined, that the actors are micro-phoned,  with all but one of the actors having an electronic device centred visibly on their forehead like a caste mark (Indian bindi) for robots in a world of machines for MACHINAL, as a contemporary visual statement of ironic humour. And, since the theatre speakers delivering this microphoned sound seem to be sat on the back walls, it was quite disconcerting to SEE the actor in one position (Brandon Burke, for instance in the first scene, at the severe left of the stage, in the doorway), but HEAR  his voice coming from a completely different direction – where is one been directed to throw one’s attention since, instinctively, (since, primitive times as hunters/gatherers) we travel our animal focuses to the direction of the sound to help us to see as well hear, clearly? (A Post Modern technique of deconstruction, I expect? : (Whatever, Kevin.”) Ah, well another gesture of the vagaries of contemporary craft in pursuit of art!?

Do not miss. Go.


  1. The Oxford Dictionary of Plays by Michael Patterson. Oxford University Press – 2005.

1 replies to “Machinal”

  1. I disagree but note that I am generally unconvinced by the Brechtian distancing technique. To me it just does what it aims to do: distance,

    Perhaps I am weird but in the theatre I only start to think when my emotions are engaged. I am only prevented from thinking when I have no involvement in the lives of the characters. I don't want sentimentality, but I do want some way to care more than just in an abstract way.

    I was wearied by the stereotyping in this production. The central female character wasn't someone I could respect or admire. She seemed just a victim. By denying her substance, the playwright seemed to be victimizing her all over again. The men seemed universally loathsome.

    I want the sort of complexity Shakespeare conveyed in his characterizations. There is no one purely bad or good in his plays.

    I just couldn't wait for the production to end. I was bored rigid. And, hey, what is it with the arm rests on the seats in Wharf 2? Absurdly short and useless.

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