Drama as sharp as broken glass

Richard Standing as Martin and Sara Poyzer as Janet. Picture: Nobby Clark

Rutherford and Son

Oxford Playhouse

*****

Rutherford and Son is a staggering part-autobiographical play, long discarded but now magnificently recovered from the theatrical discards by an impressive triad of villains: Northern Broadsides company's founder and inspiration, the actor-impresario Barry Rutter; the adapter, poet and critic Craig Raine; and directing, the immortal Jonathan Miller.

I'm rather more used to Miller – famously, according to his Beyond the Fringe credits, hauled in to this world with an already fully grown beard - as an opera director: mafiosi-filled Tabarro or Rigoletto; a spine-tingling Turn of the Screw (with the magnificent young Samuel Burkey - whom Myfanwy Piper dubbed ‘a real pro' - as Miles); or side-splitting Mikados with Richard Suart.

Sir Jonathan Miller as purely theatrical stage director is, I'm ashamed to say, pretty new to me.

The reason for his own rapture at this play (‘Isn't she marvellous,' an ebullient Miller, unlit fag in hand, enthuses to my companion, both shivering outside at the interval) is obvious: against the odds, it is the achievement of one woman, a Jane Austen of her time, who even had to cloak her identity by using initials on the billboards and programme.

However on the eve of the Great War, on 31 January 1912, Githa Sowerby pulled off a stage triumph, scoring a hit with public and critics at London's Royal Court Theatre,  with the premiere of her socially hard-hitting play Rutherford and Son.

Central to the play (which can be seen at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme this coming week, 12-16 March) is an industrial family from the North of England, not entirely unlike yet hopefully not too like her own (one brother felt driven abroad to America by circumstances he could not stomach), whose lives are all corrupted and sacrificed by the slavish pursuit of mammon – and the doomed pride of one self-made man, John Rutherford (‘Barrie Rutter was born to play this role', proclaimed The Guardian).

To compare the writing, or at least the structure and content, with Ibsen is no exaggeration. Irish parallels suggest themselves: O'Casey, if not Synge. As to the actual lines, some manage, with their rebellious if not socialistic content, to sound like George Bernard Shaw, a writer whose work Sowerby must have known well.

Barrie Rutter as John Rutherford, Nicholas Shaw as John Rutherford Jnr and Catherine Kinsella as Mary

A Chekhov influence too, surmises Miller; well, possibly. Might that be further-fetched? Miller, like Rutter, who recently staged an adapted Three Sisters, knows his Chekhov well; and Chekhov's plays were all done and dusted, Miller observes, eight years earlier than Rutherford.

Rutter, whom we are just as likely to see cavorting round the stage sporting a giant phallus (The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, Lysistrata, shifted to the North East and recast by Raine, Northern Broadsides' regular adapter, as Lisa's Sex Strike), is quite marvellous as John Rutherford, the glass works owner, who ‘believes in the school of life' and accordingly treats his workers like a sweat shop, growing increasingly odious as the play progresses (he's pretty dire, cocksure and unforgiving from the start).

‘Being ‘appy makes nae porridge'; and he has a point). This is a family soap, but one with immense power and acute observation.

The atmosphere is choking, the paterfamilias' moral values vile. The firm, which means Rutherford's ego, comes before anything else, including family. Stage by stage he alienates them all – the pacing of these self-destructive encounters is one thing that makes Sowerby's play so strong: two sons, John and Richard (Nicholas Shaw, Andrew Grose), one of whom has already fled to the church (in time-hallowed aristocracy's younger son mode?); a daughter, Janet (Sara Poyzer); and a quiet but forceful daughter-in-law, Mary (Catherine Kinsella), now five years married (father-in-law: ‘Everyone knows that nothing good comes out of a marriage like yours'), who will turn out to be Rutter's blackmailing moral nemesis at the play's brilliantly set up dénouement. That, at least, comes out of it.

It's not all plain sailing. To make the case for the play, it's important the dramatic impulse never flags, and it does once or twice. There are passages that Miller surely rightly sees as a kind of Adagio. One works, another earlier on doesn't. The play is not without what today, maybe with unfair hindsight, we might call cliché.

The role of Rutherford's sister, black-clad (widowed?) Ann - Kate Anthony - is rather thinly defined by playwright and director. Janet, the daughter, tends rather to repeat herself, sometimes labouring key points. The set (Isabella Bywater) is not especially evocative or specific, and Guy Hoare's lighting – normally superb – is limited by the dependence Rutter makes on rather underpowered, gloomy candlelight. The point is obvious; but it's milked to the disadvantage of cast and audience.

But these are cavils at what was, if only because of its originality, a repertoire triumph. As a manager, Rutter is marvellous at digging out and giving daring new life to neglected, or reinventing place-specific, material, often using Morrison's adapting skills – Kleist, Sophocles, Euripides - enhancing and restoring, rather than ratting on the original. Morrison has tampered little, the location being already Geordie (or here, from the allusions, North Yorkshire): the play is allowed to speak for itself. There's a quiet, unsensationalising honesty about the production.

That's because Miller, huge intellect and all, has grasped that the unfamiliar needs a chance to speak directly. You have to give ‘new' work the chance to blossom without getting in its way. It's something some opera directors, especially German ones, could do with learning from. Miller may sex up Traviata or Rigoletto (Rosenkavalier and G&S don't need it); but here the script, perhaps inevitably prosaic with bursts of poetry, gets through. Sowerby emerges, and we are the better for it. 

Performances came and went. One of the most dramatic moments – in a way the set-piece of part one, just as the finale is that of part two - is the appearance of Mrs. Henderson (Wendi Peters), a working-class mother with the most glorious of the oop North accents, whose son has been sacked for fairly good reasons, who begs for mercy and gets none.

Barrie Rutter as John Rutherford and Sara Poyzer as Janet

This is one of the O'Casey-like moments, and like him, Sowerby brings shades of Greek Tragedy to bear.

Outwardly she's a blunt, battering Margaret of Anjou figure (Richard III). She calls a spade a spade, and we might think her an avenging angel, a foretaste of Rutherford's ultimate discomfiting and downfall: for Rutherford is indeed virtually an Arthur Miller character – think of complacent Joe Keller in All My Sons.

She and the smug, unflinching, ghastly Rutter (one of the few other actors today who could do the role so convincingly is Kenneth Cranham) do battle, a full-blooded screaming match, and though he doesn't know it, he emerges more scarred than she does. The writing is on the wall.    

There's not much time in this play for the justifiability of Rutherford's attitude, but Sowerby does scatter it around his utterances. While there's the obligatory ‘I didn't get where I got's (too Reggie Perrin) and ‘To think I devoted so much time and money to bringing you up…'; and he seems more interested in ‘the road to the Tarn', ‘Up Dales' or ‘the fell race at Grassington' than keeping his own family together (he is, in a sense, unlike them, a child; and how badly we need a Mrs. Rutherford, doubtless equally cowed), he also argues (as nouveaux riches do) for ancestral values, economic drive and necessity – the 1880s to 1910s are a time of not just economic boom, but its importance (including glass) to a national, even imperial, resurgence.

But you can imagine Rutter's Rutherford (curious coincidence of names) engaging with the war effort – arms manufacture or shell filling – with equally revolting self-justification. It's just that if his 18th Century/Industrial Revolution paternalist attitude were universal, there could well have been a Marxist revolution, as there were in Russia, Germany and Hungary, just as George V feared.

Of the rest of the cast, it's the other working class figure who scores: Richard Standing's Martin, a belated candidate for Janet's hand (here again, though not fully explored, the social bite of the play) - an offer Rutherford, jumped-up himself, sweepingly dismisses. Martin is, Miller J. is right, a fledgling Chekhovian figure.

There's no actual suicide in this play, but it's amazing Rutherford doesn't trigger some – his own, for instance. But the play does break-ups without histrionic frills. Like an edifice, it all just collapses before your eyes. Why the design plan didn't pick up on this imagery – just a glimpse of a Lowry-like factory would help – I can't think.

Catherine Kinsella as Mary and Nicholas Shaw as John Rutherford Jr.

One possible reason – hence the candles too – is that Rutter and the director want to create a feel of utter claustrophobia. The grim darkness enveloping the room serves as metaphor for moral odour, perhaps even the swirl of choking smoke that even glass factories, new inventions or no (son John is an embryonic scientist who has patented a new device his father disgustingly – or legitimately? - wants to prise from him for his own factory) belch around whole cities. Whether we're in Middlesbrough or Leeds or Bradford, it's an air no one can breathe.

Sara Poyzer's 36-year-old Janet strengthened the first half: a sort of Dorothy Tutin/Varya figure (again, Chekhov: The Cherry Orchard premiered in 1904, the year of his death), bustling round her supine father, dutiful but dull, almost but not quite (‘Where am I to go?') ready to break out in her own way (‘I'm your father: I have a right to be obeyed… .I raised you up a class, and I've a right to expect you to stay there'). Latterly she fades. How much of Sowerby, or Githa's sisters, is in her? In another life, and with more courage, Janet could so easily have been a suffragette.

The sons' performances were sound, if a bit cipher-like - though that's the point, such is the monster's sway. Richard, offered a ‘senior' curacy at St. Jude's Southport, has quite a nice surly but then conceding interchange with his father. John has a rather striking conversation with his wife – more or less a monologue for him: yet another instance of how masterful Sowerby is at giving all the characters interacting scenes that tease out some new detail.

Thanks to the money, John was despatched to Harrow: it doesn't show, except when the children warn their father, maybe not accurately, ‘Rutherford's has come to an end'. ‘Go to bed, both of you. There's man's work to be done. You're best out of the way.' What a bastard.

The climax – where the one non-acting member of the cast turns out to be the key to it all – is electrifying. Kinsella (a triumph as Rosaline in Northern Broadsides' recent Love's Labour's Lost) emerges as the one member of the plot, Rutter and Peters aside, to have real guts, and to display it. Mary's performance at the end is, for me, the best dramatic outpouring, of the whole play; far more ominous because it is so measured.

It's perhaps a rather obvious thing to say that these involving performances could yet develop and deepen. There was a very slight dress rehearsal feel about this Oxford Playhouse performance. But the case for Rutherford and Son, it is now made. Miller and Rutter are right, that it deserves to take its place amongst the greats of U.K., or indeed all turn-of-the-century, or even 20th century European, theatre.

Sowerby died in 1970 aged 93, almost entirely forgotten. There are other plays: might another be good? Anyway, you only have to look at the undated family photo around 1890 in the programme, to guarantee you won't forget her. Aged about 12 or 13, she looks fabulous. She could be my muse any day. To 02-03-13.

Roderic Dunnett

Touring till Saturday 1 June. At the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme from Tuesday 12 to Saturday 16 March, www.newvictheatre.org.uk 

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