Sometimes, inexplicably, you feel something crawling beneath your skin. An uncomfortable sense that you or someone close by might be in danger. It’s rare that something artificial produces this feeling so accurately, even rarer that a student production is able to so masterfully across its runtime. While based on the classic 1928 script by Sophie Treadwell, Sydney University Dramatic Society’s (SUDS) latest production Machinal is a skillful display of performance and direction on the small stage.
Directed by Nikki Eghlimi and Georgie Eggleton, the show unfolds in an array of vignettes, following the protagonist Helen in a fight for independence. Chained down by the expectations of the patriarchy, Helen, played deftly by Daisy Semmler, is overwhelmed to say the least. As rumours swirl in her workplace that the wealthy Vice President of the company, G.H. Jones is about to propose to her and with an ageing mother to support, Helen feels like she has no choice but to accept. Jones, creepily portrayed by Jeremy Jenkins, makes Helen (and the audience) shudder at their touch and displays no concern for the welfare of anyone but himself. From the start, it is clear that the characters have been placed into a pressure cooker just waiting to explode.
Both Semmler and Jenkins are astonishingly talented. Semmler pulls the audience into the isolation and anxiety that has been forced upon Helen. Embedding each line of Treadwell’s repetitive dialogue with emotion, Semmler takes control of a challenging script to master. Whether delivering a monologue alone, or appearing alongside cast members, Semmler gives an unwavering performance. On the other hand, from the moment Jenkins steps on stage, their looming presence is immediately felt. You don’t have to believe that G H. Jones is a creep, it is something you know and can feel. Jenkins’ range is highlighted when they later take the stage as a boy, meek and wholly unthreatening.
Yet, there are moments where Machinal is just as hilarious as it is panic inducing. The very talented ensemble rapidly switches roles, helping to release just enough air so the ballooning tension doesn’t pop too early. Adele Beaumont’s few moments as Helen’s mother helps to craft the emotional heart of the play, showing how the tendrils of the patriarchy and capitalism grip within the home. Meanwhile, Annika Bates, Vita Jerram and Hamish Lewis are chameleons, transforming from sleazy bar patrons into reporters and compelling lawyers. The talents of Luke Mešterović also shine as he jumps through roles artfully using physical comedy and an array of accents to put the audience into hysterics.
Sophie Newby is the other breakout performance of the play, in their depiction of the man who changes Helen’s life. As Newby and Semmler converse on stage, it is clear that whether this was staged in an auditorium or the Cellar Theatre as furniture rumbled in the floor above, there would be magic happening on stage. Semmler sits in awe of her new acquaintance while Newby gruffly speaks of their travels around the world, teaching Helen words in new languages and a way to deal with her husband for good. It is a scene that amidst the intensity of the rest of the play, is an escape from the uneasy clutches of Mr Jones for both Helen and the audience.
The direction of Eghlimi and Eggleton should be commended for their blocking, as placement of props and characters draw the audience’s eyes through the stage, always finding new ways to shape the limited space of the Cellar. While the script does slow in momentum towards the latter end of the show, the directorial choices ensure that it is continuously engaging.
The set, while minimal, allows the focus to be placed on the performances, as the characters struggle through their bleak world. Alec Trail and and Will Maddock’s costuming should also be commended, as the actors rotate through several outfits which accentuate their various personas from standard business attire to the stylings of a satanic ritual.
For a play that was written nearly 100 years ago, Machinal would have no problem slipping into a contemporary canon. It speaks of predatory workplace environments, oppressive gender roles, the conflicting narratives people tell each other and the way the world leaves many people feeling utterly helpless and defeated. Helen can find no freedom in a relationship and no salvation in loneliness. If anything, the technology available today only heightens the cold world of the play, as the noises of computers score the actors; beeping, rumbling and spitting out anxiety.
Machinal is playing at the Cellar Theatre until October 15. Tickets are available here.