Review: Rutherford And Son
Venue: York Theatre Royal, Tuesday, May 28
The playwright Ben Jonson once said that Shakespeare “was not of an age but for all time”. Jonson certainly was prophetic given he penned those words in 1623 and whilst not drawing comparisons, Rutherford And Son is imbued with those universal themes so prevalent in the Bard’s plays – such as love, jealousy, class, hubris and money.
Githa Sowerby wrote Rutherford And Sons more than 100 years ago and the director of this production, Jonathan Miller, praises the “extraordinary unpretentious naturalism” of the play. Miller is a man who eschews updated versions of period plays and his lightness of touch in presenting an unadulterated production is hugely beneficial.
Frankly, there was no need to “update” this work, as much of what it conveys already has parallels with the present. Economic austerity is prevalent, with the owner of the glass works and raging patriarch struggling to keep his and the firm’s heads above water. The banks are pilloried for not lending money and being self-regarding and strikes loom large in the background.
The central figure of the play, the force of nature that is John Rutherford, does not appear on stage for some time as the downtrodden members of the family set the scene. A dysfunctional family both in awe of a patriarch that has given them everything but simultaneously denied them everything also.
There is the bitter spinster daughter; two sons – one a priest and the other an idealistic but profligate individual with an inconvenient wife and son by accident. The world-weary mother completes an opening ensemble who delivers the prologue. Angry with each other and themselves, the dialogue crackles with invective and the real object of their discontent enters the stage to show us why.
Barrie Rutter’s Rutherford is a skilfully crafted character – an intense man that is past the peak of his powers and influence. There is the huge bark but waning ineffectual bite of an ageing beast. The family that he has bullied, harassed and dragged alongside his life’s journey, though wary of his temper, is no longer in his thrall.
Rutherford is more complex than a caricatured stubborn wilful Yorkshireman. He is supposed to be repugnant to us – but he is not. He draws a sympathetic response when he harangues his son, who owes him everything, yet wants to personally profit from a recipe for metal that he has invented. The irony is not lost on a man who has put every hour and every part of his soul into his business seeing his feckless son invent, without apparent effort, something that could save the business and make it thousands in profit.
You can almost forgive Rutherford stealing the recipe from an employee so as to ensure the family inheritance but the tragic irony is that by doing so he loses the very people he as built the business for.
The poignant second act provides the most powerful drama. Sara Poyer conveys a moving portrayal of a daughter incandescent at her lost youth, yet blissfully happy to have finally found some love with a factory employee who happens to be her father’s most trusted employee and fellow owner of the aforementioned recipe. On such a tangled web do all the characters struggle to free themselves.
The pure spite of Rutherford sacking her lover after stealing the recipe leads to the pivotal scene of enlightenment between father and daughter Emotions stored up for decades then unleashed in a tsunami of forthright fury lays bare the resentment of class confines but also explores powerful feminist themes as well.
Catherine Kinsella’s performance as Mary delivers a denouement that is as delicious as it is unexpected. This initially inconspicuous and apparently inconsequential wife of the profligate son emerges as the powerbroker of the whole drama as she does what no one else has managed and negotiates on her terms with Rutherford an outcome that secures her future and gives him an heir to the business.
This Northern Broadsides production of Rutherford And Son runs until Saturday and you would be well advised to change any existing arrangements and go and get a ticket!