Writer: Githa Sowerby
Director: Polly Findlay
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
After being instrumental in the rediscovery of Githa Sowerby in 1994, The National Theatre included her 1912 play Rutherford and Son on its list of the most influential plays of the 20thCentury. These credentials are at first hard to see in this new production directed by Polly Findlay, but a slow burn reaps dividends.
The daring set, by Lizzie Clachan, deserves its own accolades. As the audience members take their seats a sheet of heavy rain, falls, in front of the stage half-obscuring a detailed parlour room with a real fire in the hearth. Above, in one of the Lyttleton’s boxes, three women sing folksongs about the North Country. As the lights go down and the rain eases, the set pushes forward, almost jutting out into the stalls. It’s quite a spectacle.
The first act of the play struggles to match the auspicious start, and for a play supposedly about women this first act places them only at the edges of the action, and of the set, until well after the interval. This first hour of Rutherford and Son features its title characters, a glass factory owner and his son John. Even though the factory has been making a loss in recent years it once made enough money for Rutherford senior to send his two sons to Harrow, and to save his daughter from working like the other women in the town.
Both sons are disappointments to him. Richard has become a vicar, while John, who suffers from nerves, has married beneath him. Rutherford is surprised then when John announces that he has invented a cheaper way of making glass. Initially, Rutherford sees this invention as a way to remedy the factory’s steady decline but he is outraged when John offers to sell him this ‘recipe’; John doesn’t seem to realise that one day the business will be his.
As this bargaining goes on, the women remain silent. They are scared of the patriarch. Rutherford’s hard-nosed sister Ann, so mealy-mouthed when he’s not there, sits quietly by the fireside. His daughter Janet leans against the wall unsure whether her role in the household is of an unpaid servant. John’s wife Mary busies herself with her sickly baby. They cannot enter into this world of men.
Fortunately, in the second act, the story begins to go in other directions, and Rutherford is forced to realise that the women around him are not so submissive after all. Roger Allam plays the factory owner here, blustery and cold, never a slither of self-doubt. He finds it difficult to converse with his family who struggle to respect him, but he finds it easy to talk to his foreman Martin who never questions the social hierarchy. Rutherford sees himself as a feudal lord.
As his son, Sam Troughton is sickly and effete, not quite shaking off his London ways. Ann is played by Barbara Marten, but her accent sometimes is so thick that it’s difficult to catch all of her put-downs. Likewise, the accents of Joe Armstrong (Martin) and Sally Rogers (Mrs Henderson) take some getting used to. Janet’s story is the most gripping, and the one that is rooted in early feminism. Justine Mitchell excels here, and her speech about being jealous of other women is delivered with verve. As Mary, Anjana Vasan is perhaps too meek, not quite the embarrassment that the family think her, but she is allowed some autonomy in the play’s latter stages.
The direction is stately, but precise and serious with only a few laughs puncturing the two hours and 45 minutes. Rutherford and Son lacks the humour of Sowerby’s contemporary George Bernard Shaw who, also influenced by Ibsen, put women at the centre of his plays. Perhaps Ann and Mrs Henderson are supposed to offer light relief, but too many lines fall by the wayside because of the accents, and Rogers’ portrayal of a drunken working-woman seems exaggerated.
But Sowerby’s play marks a time of transition in history when women were making gains through the suffragette campaign (though the right to vote is never mentioned) and when people began to question the authority of their betters. The First World War, only two years away, would hasten both these movements. Rutherford and Son deserves its place in the canon and it would be interesting to see productions of other works by Sowerby.
Runs until 3 August 2019 | Image: Johan Persson