The opening segment finds her caught in the middle of the dark and confining subway car, anxious and uncomfortable, she gets off before her stop. The scene gives way to the interior of an office via an impressive revolving, multi-sided block of a set. The first time it revolves it appears to move out over the audience. This most imposing and impressive set (designed by Es Devlin) serves this production perfectly, smoothly revealing a new scene with each rotation.
Helen's place of employment is a non-specific office. She hasn't yet arrived. A telephone operator, file clerk, stenographer, and adding clerk all have dialogue that comes at you in snippets, put together in a hodge-podge cascade of words that don't make sense. But listen to the words. They lay a foundation.
This scene requires some patience. What may seem like gibberish is the internal monologue of someone whose mind has taken in everything, yet makes sense of nothing. In the climactic end of the scene we watch Helen's disintegration, rambling, "no job - no money," "please don't touch me," "all women - most women," "something - somebody," you get a blurry image of what is to follow.
Originally produced on Broadway in 1928 with a young Clark Gable making his Broadway debut, Machinal was written by reporter and playwright Sophie Treadwell. She combined these two skills in telling the ripped-from-the-headlines story of convicted, and ultimately executed, husband killer Ruth Snyder.
Machinal comes into focus like a cinematic long shot across a simmering desert landscape. Under her hectoring and reproachful mother ( Suzanne Bertish), we experience what Helen has been experiencing her whole life. Her mother makes her take a potato with her dinner because "potatoes go with stew."
Helen mechanically moves through life, ultimately marrying the boss (Michael Cumptsy), having his baby, and having an affair. The story takes place from the inside of Helen's mind, out. The picture comes into focus as the camera pulls out. The dialogue becomes more fluid and articulate. The drama builds as Helen loses her grip, dramatically ending with an explosive exclamation point of a moment that is sheer reality.
Director Lyndsey Turner has stylishly and handily directed this production. She and Hall take control of Treadwell's script and draw you in like sand sliding through an hourglass. Before you know it, the time (a brief 95 minutes) has passed and the production has ended with a thud (here a dramatic effect, not a condescending commentary). Hall's performance, Turner's direction, Devlin's scenic design, and the lighting by Jane Cox all combine to make Machinal move with the precision of a well-oiled machine.