It’s taken me a while to actually write about this show. Several factors contributed to what can from all external evidence would suggest as a dragging of ones feet (pen?) – but it’s more like the cogs and the levers have been clamorous inside my head and heart about this piece – more so than I had anticipated straight after the show. My internal machine noisy.

So the biggest and saddest thought I’ve had, triggered by this production (and the effusive response to it which I feel compelled to list here: John McCallum and Jason Blake and Diana Simmonds )

So here’s the thought:

If we need old and classic texts to show us social issues that “haven’t changed” in hundreds or thousand of years in the telling… then the text has failed at its job: to incite revelation and revolution.

Classic plays are an indication that theatre fails.

And this thought has really been making me feel terribly glum. Really glum. And so I’ve been thinking about the Ok Radio session at the Australian Theatre Forum 2013 (read Jane Howard’s post and my post if you want to join in the thinking with me)

If the theatre (especially via a philosophical art movement like Expressionism) is an agent of social change or a catalyst, surely after 3000 years of practice we would have stamped out some of the more ugly human traits via a means of social evolution?

Thinking about Machinal – and what seems to be acknowledged how this is a neurotic woman’s story (which frankly I don’t read it as in this my current context) – I see this as a portrait of choices about accepting one’s jailer’s instructions. I read it as the cracking open of expectation and obedience.

But what is so amazing and irritating about this experience is that we sit there in the dark, our hands politely folded in our laps, obeying the laws and conventions of what it means to be watching theatre. We sit numbed and silenced in the darkness.

There is no revolution here.

I wonder if those that ache and itch to escape their jailers (mortages, marriages, debt, jobs) inspires the theatre goers who witness Machinal to emancipate themselves? Or are we so seduced by the delight of a night out and away from our usual context that it appears more as a singular blip on the radar?

Perhaps the power in this play can be found in this complacency. We observe it placidly (as we do with the world at large) unaware that we (as audience) are condoning and supporting in silence and inaction every act.

Perhaps the notion that this is a play about a woman (as opposed to a person) says more about the stale and confused values of us the audience (or producers or whomever) at large?

Perhaps the problem that people marry for money, and kill for the right to passion/romance/imagination is a universal and timeless one. And perhaps that is the horror of being human? And why do we observe these timeless acts? To reassure we are all in a rut together? To be reminded that this is how it has always been…

I’m disappointed in theatre right now.

I’m disappointed that these stories are being presented as “still relevant” and that we still do nothing as an audience to overhaul our philosophical aches.

So… you want to know did I enjoy the show? I did. But not in a smiley smug way… but in a “I’m thinking big thoughts and I can feel the cogs whirr… I am watching as I shift the rubicks cube around and around in my head…”

I am a machine that is part of the machine.

Written for

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 a 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.