Thanks to Charlie Fink and co., when I think about being swallowed by a whale I first think of poor old Noah. And then I realise it wasn’t Noah, it was Jonah. And it wasn’t even a whale (apparently) it was a ‘large fish’. Anyhow, whoever it was/wasn’t, the thought of being slurped inside a huge pair of fishy-smelling lips is pretty daunting. There’s probably not a lot of space in there for a human, if Hope the Blue Whale’s skeleton in the Natural History Museum is anything to go by.
Where is all the whale nonsense going? Here: watching Natalie Abrahami’s production of Machinal at the Almeida is like being swallowed by a whale. Miriam Buether’s superb set slits open horizontally,* a blinding strip of light that sucks the audience inside a little black box of a room with a tilted mirrored ceiling, then vomits them back out each time Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play snaps between its episodic scenes.
What lies inside the belly of the beast are a series of scenarios from the life of a Young Woman (Emily Berrington), each only slightly more palatable than the interior of a marine mammal. Although known for its un-naturalism, Treadwell’s expressionist format mimics well the way lives are recalled in brief, vivid snapshots connected, but also dislocated, from one another. It charts the woman’s path from discontented typist to discontented wife to discontented mother to Death Row inmate.
Freed from realism by the play’s fragmented, stylised form, Buether’s design is crammed with the kind of hyper-stylised attention to detail found in Wes Anderson or Sophia Coppola films. Greys, dirty beige and black snot hues recur, punctuated by uber-sweet rose and peach (a particularly excruciating shade of cupcake-icing pink coats the honeymoon bed). Whilst the Young Woman spends her final hours with a priest in her dark cell, the heals of a pair of shoes can be spotted poking out from under the bed, their bright orange edging echoing exactly the tangerine prison uniform. None of this is window dressing, it all adds to the aura of un-reality, of a world viewed through a veil of madness and disconnection. The positioning of the mirrors means that large sections of the action are watched in reflection, creating yet another aspect of shattered reality to Treadwell’s script.
Abrahami’s production is engrossingly fun to sit through, but it fails to quite convey the desperation of the Young Woman’s situation. Hypothetically it’s easy to understand that the impoverished woman has little to no choice but to marry her boss – a man she despises – and to bear him children. But, watching, you never quite feel this to be true, especially given that her mother (Denise Black) explicitly tells her it’s not necessary she do so. Her husband (Jonathan Livingstone) isn’t awful enough to warrant genuine hatred – he’s crass, and his mere existence represents all the unfairness the Young Woman is up against in the world, but he’s never truly vile as an individual. Berrington’s performance also makes the character hard to completely root for – she’s drippy, lacking in humour, ingratiatingly naive. And at the point when she screams out her rage after giving birth, the force her of anger is slightly too controlled.
Which all adds up to making her something of a cross between a heroine and an anti-heroine. If the feminism of Treadwell’s original lay in sympathising with the central character, and viewing her as the product of a misogynistic and unjust society, then perhaps the feminism of this revival lies in its ambiguity. Rather than embodying one side of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, Berrington’s Young Woman is a messy, flawed, slippery creation – exactly the type of female character that normally proves as elusive on stage as Ahab’s white whale.
*Having recently seen Tom Scutt’s set for Julie at the National Theatre crack open in a similar way, I’m wondering if we can now call this a set design ‘trend’, in the way fashion calls something a ‘trend’ if it happens more than once. Personally, I hope it is a trend, because it’s brilliant and watching it is as exciting as unwrapping a present.
Machinal is on at the Almeida Theatre until 21st July. More info here.