Throughout five years of regular theatre reviewing, rarely have I seen a performance so harrowing, so very affecting as that of Harriet Dyer who plays the role of the Young Woman in Sydney Theatre Company’s Machinal.

There was a furious anxiety to her character, a young woman pressured into a loveless marriage and unwanted motherhood, and what few moments of joy are afforded her we recognise as being insubstantial and ultimately treacherous. Dyer was so very convincing in this role that I would be very shocked if a Helpmann nomination were not waiting in the wings, and I have no hesitation in calling it the performance of the year. Her command of playwright Sophie Treadwell’s difficult, impasto dialogue (peppered with verbal tics and a beautiful stream-of-consciousness narrative that could quite easily have become stilted in lesser hands) was superb and genuinely unsettling. As the object of her liberating affection, Ivan Donato delivered an otherwise absent warmth to her character’s life in her lover, made all the more poignant by our awareness that it wasn’t going to last.

Having premiered to great acclaim in 1928, Machinal has lost little of its punch in the ensuing 80 years. The staggering discomfort and anguish of a woman racked by a joyless marriage and a supporting cast of outstanding, fleshed out characters made for a production that was riveting from start to finish. David Fleischer’s stage design and Verity Hampson’s lighting conjured an atmospheric world of isolation and control, culminating in an impressive transition of ominous strobe lighting to a seedy, death-red speakeasy that brought this grim and repressive world to life.

Director Imara Savage undertook a grand production here, stripped back to its bleakest essentials, and the effect was entrancing. Dyer was, quite simply, sensational. This late in the year, I had imagined that the best plays of 2013 were behind us. Machinal proves just how foolish I was.

5/5 stars


Sydney Theatre Company is presenting Machinaluntil December 7.

Tell Us What You Think