Rutherford and Son at the National Theatre review ****

Rutherford and Son

National Theatre Lyttleton, 16th May 2019

It is not difficult to see what Githa Sowerby’s photo feminist play from 1912, and brought back to life at the Royal Court by feminist theatre company Mrs Worthington’s Daughters in 1980, now has such a secure place in the repertory. Its characters and its dialogue simply have so much to say about what it was to be a woman, and indeed man, in the stifling atmosphere of Northern England at the turn of the C19. I don’t what to go all Marxist on you but the way the play examines the relationship between capital and labour, the cultural superstructure that is built atop it and patriarchal repression still looks astonishing even when compared to contemporary plays which mine the same territory.

It offers rounded characters despite, or maybe because of, the economy of dialogue and even has an absorbing plot centred on the “invention” of John Jr. However it does go on a bit, especially in the first hour set-up, and the action, contained within one room of the Rutherford house, can get, intentionally, claustrophobic. (Yet more nods to the master Ibsen).

Director Polly Findlay wisely offers us a little relief by taking a couple of intervals (prefacing each act, including the opening, with Northern folk songs from Kerry Andrew and Sarah Dacey) and jogging the pace along where possible. (I’ve just noticed the run time is down to 2 1/2 hours with interval so sounds like a bit of judicious streamlining has been administered). Lizzie Clachlan’s set however has no truck with abstraction: a perfectly realised slice of Victorian melancholia, emphasised by Charles Balfour’s gloomy lighting and (Ibsen-ian) rain. The setting is 1912 Tyneside. In real life Gita Sowerby’s father, like Rutherford, ran the family glass-making business in Gateshead, at a time when this small stretch of the Tyne dominated the global glass industry, before the family left for London in 1896 after the business went t*ts up. We are therefore treated to some full on Geordie accents, (courtesy of the voice and dialect work of Simon Money and Daniele Lydon), which, feel free to call me a patronising Southern twat, just occasionally got lost in translation from my perch at the back of the stalls.

Against this atmospheric backdrop the A list cast get properly stuck in to Githa Sowerby’s text. Now I don’t need to tell you how good an actor Roger Allam is. You are reading this so must have some interest in the theatre and the dramatic arts. Therefore you will know him from his innumerable stage roles, (a recent favourite was John Christie in The Moderate Soprano), his films, or off the telly, (the laconic Peter Mannion in The Thick Of It whose spirit he memorably exploited with a couple of the best one-liners in the whole of GoT as Illyrio Mopatis right at the beginning).

Anyway here he is magnificent. Daddy Rutherford is a cantankerous, despotic bully who is prepared to sacrifice all of life’s pleasures and his family, John Jr (Sam Troughton), Richard (Harry Hepple) and Janet (Justine Mitchell), on the altar of his business and, by implication, his legacy. Or is he? Whilst I am not defending the old sh*t I do think that showing some sign of deeply buried humanity and empathy, as Mr Allam did, yields dividends. Even Rutherford presumably loved his wife and kids once and, as his final promise to Mary (Anjana Vasan) shows, there is some feeling even in this ostensibly commercial transaction. Having to hand over control of the company he built to the bank and a Board has only served to make him work harder, grow tighter and turn his autocracy on those nearest to him. But he is doomed to lose the control he has over his family, mirroring the loss of control of his company. An alienated capitalist disfigured by profit in a society that will move away from him. Very clever.

And, dare I say, these three kids, whilst all having their reasons, are bloody annoying in their own way. Just to be clear I am not imposing some sort of privileged male revisionism on the play. Just that, by exposing the subtlety of the text, Polly Findlay got me to thinking about the play in a way that I had not after seeing Northern Broadsides version with the inimitable Barrie Rutter in the lead in 2013. Love has been squeezed out of the house, as Janet memorably observes, no doubt about that, but the idea that it might have been different once just made me admire the play even more. Githa Sowerby, even when her masterpiece first appeared, to great acclaim, was patronised, as all women were at that time, so the last thing her memory needs is some fat bloke, whose only qualification is that he has seen a few plays recently, upticking, but I was genuinely gobsmacked by just how much depth there is in these characters even beyond what I had remembered from a couple of previous viewings. Everyone thinks they can make everyone else happier in the play. Everyone spectacularly fails to do so.

Sam Troughton is also one of my favourite stage actors, most recently as everybloke Danny opposite Justine Mitchell’s Laura in David Eldridge’s whip-smart Beginning or, seizing the opportunity in what was otherwise a slightly pedestrian affair, as the various, flawed, men-children in Nina Raine’s Stories. His John Jr is desperate from the off. Desperate for Daddy’s approval even as he hates the f*cker, wasting his education, running off to that London, marrying Mary who is “beneath” him, running back to the family home, seeking to extract his birthright through his “invention”, venting his frustration on his own family. The Ibsen-ian sins of the father are listed on the weak, vacillating, quasi-hysterical, son. It was heart-breaking, (well maybe I exaggerate a bit, it’s just a play), to watch his continued self-deception even as Mary was shuffling him out the door as he set off once again to fail to seek fame and fortune.

Justine Mitchell is another brilliant actor who invariably stands out in whatever she appears in. See Beginning above but also, for me, in Anne Washburn’s opus Shipwreck, in Vivienne Franzmann’s Bodies, in the Donmar’s Arturo Ui and in the NT’s Plough and the Stars.. Hell she can even make sense of Restoration comedy. There are multiple layers of bitter, ironic resentment in her Janet because of the way she has been treated by her father and the Victorian/Edwardian patriarchy but this is still a powerful, sensual woman as we see in the scenes with Joe Armstrong’s blunt Martin, whose loyalty to Rutherford, (which itself maybe be the false consciousness of the oppressed), is put to the test. The release when Janet “confesses” to the affair, and Rutherford boots her out, following hot on the heels of Mrs Henderson’s (Sally Rodgers) p*ssed up tirade against Rutherford for the way he treated her son, is immense.

Harry Hepple as the younger son Dick, a curate, a profession old Rutherford regards with sneering disdain, who determines to escape to another parish in Southport, has less to play with but also makes the most of it. Anjana Vasan, so, so good in An Adventure at the Bush, and with smaller roles in Rebecca’s Frecknall’s lauded production of Summer and Smoke and the Young Vic Life of Galileo, represents the future as Mary, exercising her agency and opinion from the start in marked contrast to Barbara Marten’s aunt Ann, who is almost parodic as a woman whose behaviour and thinking is entirely dictated by the archaic values of the “society” around her.

Marvellous play, perfectly realised by a director who trusts the author, with a cast, to borrow the literary cliche, at the peak of its powers. OK, so much like its characters, it can’t quite escape its Edwardian roots, three acts, unity of time, place and action, painstaking exposition, which requires commitment from you the audience but once drawn in there is enough in the climaxes in the story, and especially, the detail of the context, to keep the committed theatre nut as happy as a sandboy. (A phrase from the C18 I gather which refers to the lashed up lads who were paid in drink to deliver and spread sand on the floor of pubs to soak up the various forms of sh*t. A much vivid indictment of the evils of unregulated capitalism is tricky to imagine).

So if this sounds like your sort of thing then you shouldn’t hesitate, there’s plenty of tickets left. If it doesn’t probably best not to be brave here. The Tourist though, having missed the Orange Tree revival of Githa Sowerby’s other major play, The Stepmother, is now firmly on the look-out for a chance to rectify.

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