Written a century ago, Rutherford & Son is a play with universal themes: family rivalry, money and power. Northern Broadsides' artistic director Barrie Rutter has again collaborated with writer Blake Morrison (they last worked together on We are Three Sisters) and polymath Jonathan Miller directs.
Rutter takes on the central role of Rutherford, the owner of a glassworks, who swaggers and bullies his way through the play, at one point ordering his daughter Janet to remove his shoes. ‘Spoilt, that’s what you are my lass, spoilt.’ Soon she is spitting venom, telling him that she wishes he was dead. It’s just one of three rebellions by his children as the domineering Rutherford continues to put his work and reputation first. ‘Life is work, work and more work,’ he says.
One son leaves, another turns to religion but his banishment of his daughter is the most dramatic. When he discovers she is the talk of the county for her affair with his right hand man he orders her to leave and that her name will be erased from his family forever. Janet, stunningly played by Sara Poyzer, lets rip with a discourse not only about her dismal life but about the class system at the turn of the 20th Century.
It’s recently emerged that playwright Githa Sowerby based the story on her grandfather, who ran the Sowerby glassworks in the north east. There are parallels in the play with Githa’s life – it was put on the stage when she was 36, the age Janet is when she rebels against her father. Things appear to have ended a little more happily for Githa as in the year her play was a hit in London and New York, she had a whirlwind romance and married, later having a child in her early forties.
Being a celebrated female playwright was a rare thing in 1912 and although this darkly bleak production of Rutherford & Son is wonderful, Githa’s own life story is even more intriguing.