New York in the 1920s was a time of contradictions; the ‘roaring twenties’ was all jazz, flappers, and cigarettes in elegant holders – in short, liberation and vitality for men and women alike. Yet it was also the era of Prohibition when alcohol could only be had in speak-easies, and the social mores of the 19th century collided with new irreverent lifestyles.
Women may have been making their way into the workforce in increasing numbers, but mostly as typists, stenographers and the like, and generally prior to marriage only.
Sophie Treadwell’s expressionist masterpiece Machinal, which has recently opened at the Almeida, is a study of the frustrations that these contradictions sparked in early 20th century America, but it also has wider resonance as a meditation on the social confinement that confronts many women to this day.
The American playwright and campaigning journalist herself refused to submit to society’s gendered demands, but her play portrays a woman who does, at least initially.
Emily Berrington is compelling as the play’s protagonist Helen, who fails to resist the pull of the financial safety that marriage brings, but then balks at the ties that bind her, furious at being obliged to submit, and enraged also that ‘nobody says anything’ about what marital life and motherhood might bring.
The staging’s clever use of light and reflection is a good counterpoint to the fast-paced modernist dialogue. The accents are not quite Big Apple, but they are passable.
Natalie Abrahami’s production of this 1928 play makes one marvel at how far women have come in 90 years, but also how little many of us have changed.
Until 21 July 2018.