Rebecca Hall Takes on the Machine of Broadway in Machinal
The West End stage veteran is currently making her Great White Way debut in Roundabout Theatre Company's rediscovery of Sophie Treadwell's 1928 masterpiece.
It's fair to say that Rebecca Hall is one of the most promising young actresses of her generation. In her native United Kingdom, she's charmed audiences on stage in roles ranging from Shakespeare's Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night to Shaw's Vivie Warren in Mrs. Warren's Profession. On screen, Hall has straddled the world of small films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona (for which she received a Golden Globe nod) and big-budget blockbusters like Iron Man 3. Yet up until late last year, one major credit was missing from her resume: Broadway.
Hall was no stranger to the New York theater scene, taking her Rosalind in As You Like It (directed by her dad, the legendary Peter Hall) to Brooklyn Academy of Music, but until last month, she hadn't played the Main Stem. It was then that she made her Broadway debut in Machinal, Sophie Treadwell's harrowing 1928 drama about a woman trapped in the machine of her life, at the American Airlines Theatre under the direction of UK theater ace Lyndsey Turner.
Shortly after her opening night (an evening fraught with peril when Es Devlin's massive set decided to stop working), TheaterMania chatted with Hall about rediscovering Sophie Treadwell's masterpiece, comparing the differences between working on Broadway and the West End, and getting why Machinal is the kind of play that doesn't make it easy to eat pizza after you see it.
Before we start, I have to ask what went through your mind when the set broke on opening night.
Beyond sheer panic? [laughs]
How did you all come to the decision to actually push on with the show, instead of just canceling?
There was such a rousing Let's Do It for Sophie Treadwell spirit that was happening backstage that made it feel impossible not to. [Director] Lyndsey [Turner] and I had this discussion about what do we do? Do we start from the beginning again or do we start where we left off? [The play], it's cumulative. I get on that box and it's a machine and I literally don't step off it until it's over. The cumulative effects of it are crucial to make sense of the play. We had to start again. That was nerve-wracking and terrifying, prior to walking on and doing it. Then it became sort of exhilarating. It makes me realize how different it is night to night, and how it does have to exist in the moment. That evening was a perfect illustration of what live theater is.
In theater school here in the States, we're taught that the title is pronounced Mack-inal, but your production pronounces the title as Mash-inal. What's the difference?
When they did it on Broadway [in 1928], some pompous person who thought he knew better than the playwright decided to put the phonetics in the [program] with a hard-K. From there goes her story.
How did you first become aware of Machinal?
A friend of mine who works in the theater said you should read the play because there's a good role for you in it. I read it and thought, Wow, what an extraordinary piece of writing. It's part-Beckett, part-German Expressionism, part true-kitchen-sink human drama. I remember thinking this is an important play and I can see how it can still be radical and polarizing. But it has a potential to be disastrous if a director comes along and wants to put a big production on top of it and show off the pyrotechnics.
When did you realize Lyndsey Turner was the right person to helm your production?
When I met Lyndsey, I said my two big questions were, "Are you going to see the electrocution at the end?," and "Is it going to be a big, flashy production that's going to eclipse any human element in the play?" She said it could never do that because the only reason to do this play is to make the play be heard again. Whatever the production does will support what the play is, from moment to moment. And I think she said the words, "And nobody's going to see you do electrocution acting, because nobody wants to see that and it's grotesque." From then, I was pretty much in. I think the production is breathtaking. It's flashy in parts, but it totally supports the humanity of the play.
Loaded question: Are there differences between performing on Broadway and performing on stage in the West End?
It's difficult to say. There are always differences, but I really think that when an actor does theater, you're more aware of the differences night to night. Whether [the audience] decides to laugh or [not] laugh or how much their energy is with you or not, that's the stuff you notice. That's so variable from night to night, show to show. Larger comments, I don't know if I could discern them.
When I interview American actors making their Broadway debuts, they always talk about how getting to perform on Broadway was the be-all/end-all dream. Is that true of you, as well, or as a British actor, were you more determined to perform on the West End?
Broadway has so much mythology that comes with it — the name is just so evocative, it instantly pumps you with adrenaline when you say it. There's no doubt that was always an exciting prospect. But so is the West End, and so was any theater, actually, when I was growing up. My dad has instilled me with a sense of respect for a playwright and doing a play; it doesn't matter where you do it. I think actually that's the responsibility that I have carried with me. That's the good fortune of the family I was born into. I don't get overwhelmingly star struck of things beyond wanting to serve the play and do my job. But yeah…it's still exciting [laughs].
Did your dad provide you with any words of wisdom before you started off on the Broadway journey?
He tends not to presume that his advice should be given unless I ask for it, which I always do. [laughs] I think we had a general chat about Broadway. There was nothing specific about this play. He doesn't know [it] so well.
Do you think this play and production would work on the West End?
I think people would love it in London. I think people would love it in most places. I think "love it" is a strange word. I think it has a strong effect on people. I don't think people instantly come out and say "I love it" because I think people feel a bit shaken for a while. It will always have a tendency to shake people up and polarize people. It's not necessarily the kind of play that makes it really easy to have a pizza afterward. [laughs] And I think that's a good thing.