Emily Berrington on womanhood, societal pressure, and her revival of Machinal
We sat down with Emily Berrington to discuss her new role in the Almedia Theatre’s revival of Machinal, an acclaimed play detailing the unraveling of a woman trapped under the thumb of patriarchy.
Her first appearance on our screens was a bit part in the BBC adaptation of best-selling author Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. Since then, Emily Berrington’s star has risen sharply, and just two years later she landed the principal role in Humans, the most acclaimed Channel 4 series of the past 20 years. Humans is a dark sci-fi thriller that presents a somewhat dystopian world where artificial intelligence has been integrated fully within people’s lives. The series has served as a competent vehicle for social commentary: “series three really explores the idea of a divided society and how quickly fear can turn into hatred”. The show has found a sizable crossover audience amongst those apathetic to the science fiction genre, not least because of the widely praised performances of its leading cast.
While still in the relative infancy of her acting career, Emily has established herself through Humans as a competent leading lady and found herself with the opportunity to audition for some pretty impressive gigs: last year she took the title role in an adaptation of “book of the year” sensation The Miniaturist, and in March she was given the chance to audition for a Machinal revival.
Machinal is a very ostentatious piece of theatre. Written in 1928 by American journalist Sophie Treadwell, the production is what we recognise to be by contemporary standards as an exploration of womanhood under controlling and debilitating patriarchal oppression. The original cast featured Zita Johann and Clark Gable, and many revivals have been staged since including a 1993 version starring theatre legend Fiona Shaw. Emily immediately knew it was a story she wanted to tell, “I read it with my heart in my mouth, I couldn’t believe how modern it felt for a play written 90 years ago”.
Emiy was delighted to be offered the role and felt, alongside director Natalie Abrahami, that it was important this revival find it’s own way of interpreting Treadwell’s text. She said, “I’ve very deliberately not looked up too much about previous productions. What’s so wonderful about Machinal, and in fact all great writing, is that theres a lot of room to explore. Even within our own rehearsal process we’ve discovered so many ways we could tell this story before arriving at this one”.
The play follows a young woman working as a stenographer who reluctantly gives in to the consuming societal expectations around her and marries her boss, a man she finds abhorrent and physically repulsive. Unhappiness and ennui drive her to an affair, which revitalises her spirit and ignites a passion for life that becomes her undoing. Treadwell’s play is considered a masterpiece of feminist literature, and one of the great highlights of American Expressionist theatre. What’s distressing and unfortunate is that it resonates so strongly today.
Emily states, “I think Sophie Treadwell would be very sad to know how relevant her play still is. Whether it’s predatory workplace environments, that women are still expected to abandon their independence when they marry, the impact capitalism has on our life choices, or a woman’s right to choose whether she bear a child or not – every page of this play has resonances with life today.”
Machinal is a great opportunity for Berrington to exercise her dramatic chops to their fullest extent. The role is an emotionally demanding one, and must be draining for even the most talented of actors. Berrington lives in London and like so many young people in creative industries recognises the near necessity of being there for career growth. The downside is the fast-paced, unrelenting lifestyle that can so often leave people burned out.
She explained, “I’ve thought about this a lot while rehearsing Machinal – the play questions how healthy it is for people to live in crammed, noisy, urban environments. My escapism in London is its green spaces – Victoria Park in Hackney is one of my favourites.”
Before finding her calling as an actor, Emily worked in politics with Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh. She said, “I always knew I’d stay politically active in some form, whatever profession I ended up in. Being vocal about issues I feel strongly about is important to me regardless of whether I have a public platform to do it from or not.”
One of the great joys of being a successful actor, surely, is an ability to pick projects with messages worth amplifying. With Machinal, Emily is keen to point out that the play teaches us that time isn’t always a healer, “It’s made me realise we can’t just trust that the passing of time equals social progress – change has to be fought for.”
And isn’t that a statement to really think about? Whether it’s women’s rights and feminism, or racial and sexual equality – time changes nothing. It’s people who fight that do.
Photography by Joseph Sinclair
Follow Emily Berrington on Instagram: @emily_berrginton_
Machinal Runs at the Almeida Theatre in Islington until the 21st July 2018. Tickets are priced from £10.