Life & Culture

Machinal review: superb depiction of a life trapped by conventions

Sexually repulsed by her spouse, the affair is the Young Woman’s only source of hope


Boxed in: Rosie Sheehy (centre) as the Young Woman in Machinal

Old Vic | ★★★★★

In late 2020 a rising star called Rosie Sheehy defied the still raging pandemic and in front of a socially distanced audience turned David Mamet’s Oleanna (1992) into a modern post#MeToo play.

Mamet would claim it always was a play for all time. But so powerfully did Sheehy’s student Carol reverse the power dynamic with Jonathan Slinger’s arrogant older tutor, assumptions about the unfairness of Carol’s accusations of inappropriate behaviour no longer held true.

The anger this actor is able to summon was terrifying then, and it is terrifying now in the role of Young Woman in this stark revivial of Sophie Treadwell’s American expressionistic play of 1928.

The work was inspired by a real-life and notorious trial of a woman who was executed for murdering her husband. In a series of scenes that seem nailed to the stage like wanted posters, the life of the unnamed Young Woman is shown to be an oppressive existence.

At her office job she is the target of sneering peers and sexually exploited by the boss who later becomes her (much older) husband. At home she is tethered to a manipulative mother who depends on her daughter’s income. There is even oppression on the way to work with bodies pressed against her on the subway so tightly she can barely breathe. Relief arrives in the form of an affair which begins in a speakeasy, this being during prohibition.

But it is the prohibition of joy not alcohol that informs the life of Young Woman. Hyemi Shin’s angular set is painted a sickly yellow and forces much of the action into a wedge shape reinforcing a sense of claustrophobia. The bedroom scenes with her pitiless husband (an excellent Tim Frances) are excruciating. Sexually repulsed by her spouse the affair is her only source of hope until that too becomes a nail in her coffin.

There is no judgment in Richard Jones’s mesmerising production. What we get is a depiction of a life trapped by the machine-like forces of work and societal conventions. That and the brilliant Sheehy whose Young Woman draws self-loathing from the depths of her doomed character. I know of no better actor.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive