Review - Rutherford and Son at the National Theatre
"Rarely-seen" is all relative: Githa Sowerby's play, written in 1912, may not exactly be a theatrical standard, but it was last seen in London in 2013 in a transfer for Northern Broadsides' production from Halifax to what is now The Other Palace, when it was directed by the veteran Jonathan Miller. Before that, it had been revived at the National in 1994 by Katie Mitchell, in a production starring the late, great Bob Peck in what is now the Dorfman; now it claims its place once again on the stage of the National in the larger Lyttelton.
If Polly Findlay's production is altogether more epic than either of those more intimate studio productions, it reveals yet again the enduring slow-burning, and eventually churning, power of this play, and now places it firmly in the reclaimed, rather than lost, corner of world drama. As a programme note about the legacy of its playwright puts it, "the National Theatre played a central role in her rediscovery." The success of that 1994 production "prompted the National to place Rutherford and Son on the list of the 100 most influential plays of the 20th century."
With a ferocious downpour of rain swamping the stage as the audience enters, through which the a capella voices of singers stationed on either side of the circle level can be heard, there's an immediate impact of spectacle: the sort of thing that the National excels at. But if Findlay's production - with its oppressive drawing room setting by Lizzie Clachan and initially gloomy lighting by Charles Balfour - is initially dour, so are the lives it portrays, in which a Northern industrial family are held captive and beholden to the patriarch figure of John Rutherford.
His stern, forbidding sister Ann enforces a stiff discipline over the house, but all three of his now adult offspring are yearning for their own escapes. John Jnr has developed his own invention that he could provide one for him, his wife Mary and young baby son; his brother Richard has become a priest; and their sister Janet is a 36-year-old spinster, who suddenly finds comfort and the prospect of a different life in the arms of Martin, a man who works for her father.
As the play turns into a bitter power struggle of multiple betrayals and deal-making, Sowerby cleverly manipulates the women here into pole position: it is John Jnr's wife Mary who ultimately plays the biggest inheritance card over her father-in-law in a blazing confrontation.
Findlay's production provides deeply etched portraits of each character, with the formidable Roger Allam, back at the National for the first time in a decade, in tremendous form as the bewhiskered Rutherford. As his offspring, the trio of Sam Troughton, Justine Mitchell and Harry Hepple are equally magnificent; while Anjana Vasan and Joe Armstrong, as the daughter-in-law and worker who change the family dynamics, are also superbly inhabited.
Photo credit: Johan Persson