Writer: Githa Sowerby
Director: Jonathan Miller
Reviewer: Harry Stern
It’s stark, it’s bleak, it’s cruel and it’s worth going a very long way to see. Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides have made their reputation with straightforward, no nonsense, speak-as-you-find productions. Recently they have coaxed some big names to work with them, notably Lenny Henry to play Othello a couple of years back. Now they have persuaded Jonathan Miller to turn his hand to directing this neglected work. It is a masterstroke of stylistic synthesis which results in a completely absorbing and masterful production of a play which if not a masterpiece is something not far off.
Not many plays are prescient but, penned it 1912, Rutherford and Son heralds societal change two years before the cataclysmic events of the First War changed the world for ever. John Rutherford is a tyrant at home and at work where he rages at and bullies both his workforce and his benighted family into resentful subservience. But the world is changing as the disenfranchised slowly begin to find their voices. A year after the play had its first success Emily Davidson, the suffragette, threw herself in front of the monarch’s horse in the Derby thereby advancing the awareness of the cause.
It is a cause this play embraces. Not overtly. There is no mention of suffrage yet the rebellion has started with the arrival of John Jnr’s wife Mary into the household. An outsider in more senses than one, this woman becomes a catalyst for change and as the play progresses and the status quo begins to fracture, the winds of change howl through the fissures driving them open more widely. It is a calamitous tale of a family at war with itself set against the background of industrial decline. Yet the tyranny that Rutherford employs to dominate his acolytes is not a blunt instrument. It is calculated and subtle. He rages with the best of them, but never stops thinking. That the audience may support elements of the tyranny is testament to the intelligence of Sowerby’s pen which is as profound and as detailed as the pens of George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams and Anton Chekhov.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Miller has encouraged bold choices and the characterisations are powerful. Catherine Kinsella’s Mary, brought into a house with ‘not a scrap of love in the whole place’ is a marvelous study in Edwardian restraint and implicit resentment. Sara Poyzer as daughter Janet bursts out of her emotional straitjacket with a passion that is seismic and utterly truthful. As John Jnr Nicholas Shaw is a study in frustration and ineffectuality. But it is Rutter himself who triumphs. In a part which he was surely put on this earth to play he storms, fizzes, patronises and scythes down all opposition in his path in a barnstorming performance the like of which is rarely seen. A simple but evocative set by Isabella Bywater is beautifully lit by Guy Hoare.
Miller offers no frills. No music, scene changes conducted in the gloom and in silence. The focus is on the psychology. Despite its sparseness, or perhaps because of it and because of its boldness it is an unusual and thrilling evening in the theatre.