The National Theatre has a glorious tradition of quality revivals of previously obscure, not to say, ‘lost’ dramas and giving them the full deep tissue reincarnation.
This play, Rutherford and Son which I initially took to be a main stage act at Glasto gone rogue was written in 1912 by Githa Sowerby based on her own upbringing in Gateshead. The blurb said it placed her alongside Ibsen and Bernard Shaw adding a female voice to the searing depictions of class gender and generational warfare.
It’s a depiction. It’s by a woman which was a major achievement given when it was written. But Ibsen and Shaw as comparators? Nope, sorry.
Every one of the characters are unlovely and unloveable. Just grim up north. Like Zola without the jolly banter and japes.
The acting is a bit of curates egg. The author was from the North East, a Geordie town you’d assume. And one character has a perfectly acceptable accent. But Roger Allam as the eponymous Rutherford is more solid Yorkshire, probably a standard ‘Northern’ accent, the son, admittedly educated at Harrow isn’t much of anything and the daughter sounded to both of us like West Coast Irish. Bit weird, like watching Anne Hathaway in One Day muller a variety of English accents.
When we were discussing this after, we touched on that hot topic of cultural appropriation, about how only those of the right gender inclination or race or whatever should play a specific character. No white guy is going to black up for Othello these days. And we thought someone might be thinking about a protest group protecting our Geordie accents and their heritage. And how that misses a salient point in the debate which is that it isn’t an issue of equality but of equalisation. There are plenty of white western actors and roles for them and not so much for those of, say, limited height, a certain ethnicity, a particularly presented gender. They need the leg up that ensuring actors with their characteristics manifest. But I digress…
Rutherford and Son is bleak, a paean to the theory that the end justifies the means, a gloomy prognosis that might is right and will always win. It neatly parcels up misanthropy, misogyny and misandry over two hours and fifteen minutes. No one captures the heart. There are also theatrical devices which jar – a mother of a worker allowed into the presence of the boss to berate him, felt distinctly unlikely to happen.
It was undoubtedly an extraordinary achievement to have written that play in 1912 as a woman and for that we should be grateful it is still remembered. There are some parts that hold the attention: when the daughter, at last, lets go and accuses the father of ruining her life it is plain to see how that might, in 1912 have been a pivotal revelation. But to conflate this plays importance with the quality of a master playwright like Ibsen is the equivalent of admiring the skill of the Brutalist concrete boxes that make up the National theatre and to suggest they are the equal of a Wren or Hawksmoor masterpiece: they have their place in the pantheon of architecture as does Sowerby in the history of play-writing, but it is a different place.
Save me from hyperbolic blurbs…