Two for the Treadwell — Rebecca Hall Makes Her Broadway Debut in Sophie Treadwell's Machinal

Rebecca Hall chats with Playbill.com about making her Broadway debut in the politically charged play Machinal.

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Rebecca Hall
Rebecca Hall (Photo by Jeff Vespa)

Two forward-thinking British females — actress Rebecca Hall and director Lyndsey Turner — are coming to the rescue of an American damsel long in distress, making their Broadway debuts with the first Main Stem revival of a Sophie Treadwell play.

Treadwell straddled two male-dominated worlds during the first half of the twentieth century — journalism and playwriting — and somehow, unfairly, slipped through the cracks of both. Her most famous work, Machinal, came out of both professions, and, courtesy of Roundabout Theatre, it is coming back to Broadway Jan. 16 to the American Airlines Theatre, 86 years and four days after the event that inspired it.

Treadwell was moved, deeply, to write this play when she saw on the front page of the New York Daily News — the iconic, if illegal, news photo of Ruth Snyder, bound and masked, dying in the electric chair — and it occurred to her what little say women had in the chaotic transition from the Victorian to the Industrial Age. The rhythm of life changed with mechanical innovations, reducing human beings to cogs in wheels.

She had it on Broadway less than nine months after the execution, written in an Expressionistic style then popular in Europe. Principals in the Snyder love triangle were identified only as A Young Woman, A Husband and A Man — Clark Gable thoroughly filling the bill as the latter in his pre-Hollywood, Broadway debut. In 1993 a quite famous revival was done in London at the National Theatre, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Fiona Shaw, John Woodvine and Ciarán Hinds.

"I knew Machinal from that production, but I didn't see it — I would have been [an] 11-year-old at the time!" said Hall, who shares the Roundabout triangle with Michael Cumpsty and Morgan Spector. She seemed a little apologetic and regretful about it. When director Turner proposed a revival with her as the Young Woman, Hall didn't hesitate. "I just instantly responded to her. She hasn't directed me before, but I felt such an overwhelming trust in her presence that I knew I could probably do anything she asked me to do."

As written in a generalized long-shot by Treadwell, her character seems average. "In the play, she's described as a young woman who's like any woman. I think Treadwell is trying to say there is nothing particularly extraordinary about her. She's an Everywoman, and the story's about how an ordinary woman, in not extraordinary circumstances, is driven to murder. Nothing makes her mad or crazy. She's normal."

Hall is the daughter of legendary British director Sir Peter Hall, who waited 20 years before putting her natural (quite possibly, born) aptitude to the test by casting her in her first professional stage role — Vivie in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession.

"It was a great part and a great play, and I got to work with Brenda Blethyn," Hall recalled of the two-time Oscar nominee and Olivier Award–winning actress, "but it was possibly the most terrifying experience of my life because of the pressure. I had to be good. If I had been just passably okay, I don't think I'd have been able to have a career, so I thought I might as well find out if I was good. Now."

Now was 2002. In 2003 it won her the Ian Charleson Award, given to actors under 30 for the best classical stage performances in Britain. She has been acting ever since.

With that kind of privileged childhood, could she have done anything else? "No, probably not. That's a chicken-or-egg question, isn't it? I don't know any different now, so I guess not. I think I wanted to be an artist or a musician, but they're all related. Acting is not exactly straying very far from the path, is it?"

Hall's mother is the famed American opera singer Maria Ewing. Yes, "I can sing, but I've never done a musical — and, yeah, I'd love to."

The world has come to see what her father first saw — a dedicated and dimensional actress who has ricocheted from medium to medium and racked up a ridiculous amount of awards and nominations doing so. Her films range from Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" to Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" to Ben Affleck's "The Town" — even to "Iron Man 3," no less!

Two more films are poised for release. The first, "A Promise," is a romantic triangle set in pre-World War I Germany with Alan Rickman and Richard Madden ("Game of Thrones"). The other, "Transcendence," with Johnny Depp is, she said, "shrouded in mystery and should stay that way. It's far too interesting and original a story to give away prematurely."