Though a big hit when first staged, Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play went unperformed for decades until a relatively recent resurgence of interest in her work. This year there’s not one but two major productions of her best known work. In May, Roger Allam takes the title role in Polly Findlay’s production for the National Theatre. First up we have Caroline Steinbeis’ production for Sheffield Crucible.
Steinbeis makes it both possible to appreciate what an insightful piece of writing it is and why it might appeal to a modern audience.
Rutherford and Son is a play about the damage that men are capable of inflicting on their families, themselves and the world. Rutherford (Owen Teale) runs a glassworks in a northern industrial town. He has “toiled like a dog” all his life, ostensibly for the benefit of his family, but none of his children meet his exacting standards. His oldest, the ambitious John (Ciaran Owens), hopes to make his fortune by way of a new metal he has invented, while his second son Richard (Esh Alladi) has joined the clergy, which Rutherford views as tantamount to shirking. He’s given his children the means not to work and spent money on their education, but bridles at any independence of mind or spirit, any interest in anything other than the family business. Industry is all. They’re just fodder.
His daughter Janet (Laura Elphinstone), a spinster of 36, has led an isolated life, cut off from the local community, because her father deems such society beneath her. She’s a prisoner of his ideals, expected to fetch his slippers and see to his dinner – not to have hopes and needs of her own.
He has built a little kingdom, in which he is feared but also hated. When it comes to light that Janet has been having a relationship with Martin, one of Rutherford’s most trusted employees, things come to a head.
Steinbeis’ production plays out on Lucy Osborne’s suitably gloomy, stone-floored set: the home as jail cell. It’s an unflashy production, determinedly naturalistic and sometimes slow-paced, but this allows the play to sing. It’s incredibly sharp on the entanglement of the male ego and the machinery of capitalism, the poison of the patriarchy.
There are some very strong performances too. Teale plays Rutherford as a blinkered bully, but not an out-and-out tyrant. You can sense that his family fears him and the completeness of his belief that “life is work”. Owens’ John justifiably bridles at constantly being belittled by his father, but he’s just as capable of callous, self-furthering behaviour.
The ever-watchable Elphinstone is on particularly good form as Janet, giving a performance of passion, frustration and ultimately devastation, her life subject to the tempers of men. Marian McLoughlin has a nice turn as a Sarsons-tongued aunt. But it’s Danusia Samal as John’s wife, an object of contempt, who proves herself the most able to play Rutherford at his own game.