“What have I had before I go back into the dark?”
Githa Sowerby’s play Rutherford and Son was written in 1912 and became a great hit. While she was only known by her initials, G.K. and people thought that she was a man there were comparisons to Ibsen. It is a great play which has a strong economical structure (we see nothing that we don’t need to see and every character has a strong impact) and fine dialogue- especially for the female characters, a real achievement that is now recognised as one of the great plays of the last century after a period of neglect. She never wrote anything else as successful, or as masterly. Perhaps she didn’t need to.
John Rutherford has dedicated his life to building up a glass works. It is this which will be his legacy and nothing has ever been allowed to come before that. Wealth and security (a far off dream to many in Edwardian England and not to be risked lightly) have not come easily- it has been a constant battle to develop and protect what he has made. He is a hard man, and no wonder. His three children are paying the price. They have security but at an enormous cost and there is no space or expectation that they should have their own lives and their own dreams, even simple ones of building a family and finding love. Everything they do must take second place to their father’s achievements and serve his needs. They have been elevated into a section of society only by their father’s hard work and force of personality and they can find no place there on their own merits. It is their attempt to break away from him and, in their different ways, live life on their own terms, that form the basis of the plot. As they do this Githa Sowerby gives us a picture of both a family in crisis and the shifting social sands of Edwardian England, particularly for women. It is a pile driver of a play. Her own family were glass makers so she knew what she was talking about.
It’s a great vehicle for Northern Broadsides who have a real talent for finding material that suits them. More than anything it is a superb central role for Barrie Rutter. If the man who built up a theatre company from nothing into one that has gained respect and love from it’s audiences and done some fine work doesn’t understand a man like Rutherford then nobody will. I really don’t think I have ever seen him give a better performance and I have seen many of them. It would be easy to play Rutherford as a monster but this understanding gives us more than that. He has sincerely felt that he has been doing the right thing by his children and expects them to understand this and give way to him in everything. It will all be theirs one day and it is not his concern that they may need a life of their own in the meantime. If you want his respect you have to earn it the hard way, there is little warmth in him and no compromise. If there had been he would not have achieved what he has. He pushes himself hard and expects those around him to do the same. His only real understanding and care comes for his men, especially his right hand man Martin (nicely played by Richard Standing as a man trapped in the social restrictions of his time) not his family. Any show of softness or weakness is looked down on- especially of a feminine kind. Strength and loyalty are what matter, not love, and actions not words. As his daughter explains to the sweet little working class Londoner, Mary, who her brother has married, “We were made that way- set- and that’s the way we have to live.” During the course of the play Rutherford learns a grudging respect for another kind of strength, and that is his journey.
There are two great women’s parts in Rutherford and Son and both of them get the outstanding performances which they deserve. Catherine Kinsella is very moving as the warm hearted, ordinary London lass, Mary, who has made what she probably thought was a very fortunate marriage to Rutherford’s son, John Jr, a well off young man with prospects. Sadly she has found that, after three months, her only prospect is that of waiting around being looked down on as an incomer in a cold Northern family who she doesn’t initially understand. Her early scenes are a tour de force of listening as she begins to realise her situation and the truth of her new husband’s character. You can see every thought flash across her face. This sets up what happens later in the play perfectly as both the actress and the character seize their moment. It is astonishing to watch- one of those times where you can feel the temperature inside the round drop. The SJT loves this kind of intense psychological scene- especially when it is done as well as that.
From the minute that Sara Poyser arrives on stage as Rutherford’s daughter Janet, answering back with a sharpness born of bitter experience, it is clear that this is both her father’s daughter and a deeply unhappy woman who has been starved of love and opportunities for too long. She finally has found a fleeting chance of happiness and the scene where this chance is played out to its conclusion really does bear comparison with Ibsen. There are some things in life that you just can’t fight, however hard you try and watching her as she realises this is heartbreaking.
Director Jonathan Miller has brought a real sense of delicacy and psychological realism to the production- not always Northern Broadsides natural style- and this particular play has really benefitted from that. There was considerable excitement when he agreed to do it and it has proved to be justified. The set and costumes are perfectly in period and the lighting is beautiful, delicate and subtle. Whatever edits that Blake Morrison has provided have only served to tighten up what was already a great play. It is over twenty years since this play was last performed at the Stephen Joseph. I was there then and recognised it as a very good play. I now know that it is a great one.