Rutherford, the domineering patriarch in Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play, is a man for whom the family business is everything. He has sweated for decades at his Tyneside glassworks so that his children can better themselves, but actively resents them as a result. He’s a domestic despot who expects “a return from his bairns” and cannot tolerate any form of challenge to his authority. He will sink his family rather than change his ways.
Drawing on her own background – her family owned a glass manufacturing business in Gateshead – Sowerby’s play is a remarkable piece of writing, astute about class, capitalism and the destructive capacity of unbending men. A success when first staged, it sank out of view for decades, before being revived by the National in the 1990s. Polly Findlay’s production is the second major staging this year, after Caroline Steinbeis’ subtler production for the Sheffield Crucible.
Roger Allam’s Rutherford despises his son John (Sam Troughton) for trying to make his fortune via a patent for a new kind of glass-making process rather than through graft. Younger son Richard (Harry Hepple) has sought refuge in the clergy, which renders him next to worthless in Rutherford’s eyes. Harried daughter Janet (Justine Mitchell) has not been allowed to socialise with anyone her father deems beneath her (therefore everyone), is fast passing marriageable age, and is expected to work as an unpaid skivvy in the house, seeing to his slippers and his dinner.
Allam’s badger-bearded Rutherford is relatively restrained; he dominates, not with his fists, but with his bludgeoning tongue, his emotional rigidity and unwillingness to listen. Allam resists the urge to make a cartoon villain of him; he undercuts this bullying with a quieter undercurrent of fear. He sees the damage he is doing, but cannot help himself; he is incapable of change.
Findlay’s production tilts towards melodrama at times. It’s beautifully designed – Lizzie Clachan’s detailed Edwardian set, with its heavy velvet curtains, over-stuffed dresser and ominous clock, is majestically oppressive, the visible ceiling adding to the sense of entrapment. But, some of Findlay’s more cinematic flourishes – the ceaseless sheeting rain, the choral music – obscure rather than illuminate. She allows the play to unfold at its own pace, though. She trusts it.
All the other men in the play are, in their various ways, weak. This includes Rutherford’s loyal employee, Martin (Joe Armstrong), who is unable to break away from the master he’s served for most of his life.
Sowerby excels at showing the way in which women navigate the patriarchy, the unending compromise and negotiation. Mitchell is staggeringly good as Janet: frayed, frustrated, furious. Her exchange with Martin, the man to whom she has pinned her hopes, her heart, is devastating. There’s a nice sense of quiet understanding too, between her and Anjana Vasan as John’s wife Mary, who demonstrates a clear-eyed understanding of how to survive in a world populated by men like Rutherford.