Rutherford and Son (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Given the fact that the National Theatre’s next season has few female writers, it is good to see this revival of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 family drama, set in the industrial North Country.

Roger Allam and Justine Mitchell.
Roger Allam and Justine Mitchell.

The Rutherfords are the wealthiest family in the town, factory owners and major employers. Mr Rutherford (Roger Allam) is a widower with three grown children: Richard (Harry Hepple), a curate; Janet (Justine Mitchell), a spinster of 36; and John (Sam Troughton), a nervous consumptive who married low and has a sickly baby son.

With them live Miss Rutherford (Barbara Marten), a moral force of repression, and maid Susan – never seen. Mr Rutherford’s right-hand man at work is Martin (Joe Armstrong), with a quarter-century of service, a plain man who holds his place in high regard.

Joe Armstrong.
Joe Armstrong.

At the opening of the play there’s heavy rain across the drab setting of the Rutherfords’ dining room cum office. Mary (Anjana Vasan), five years married to John and three months resident in the house, is still a stranger there.

Mr Rutherford, referred to by his son as “The Guvnor” rules his house with terror and bullying, repressing his daughter and mocking his sons, while maintaining the family business is destined for John. When John reveals he has developed a new formula to revolutionise the glass-works, father sets a downward spiral in motion.

Sam Troughton.
Sam Troughton.

With a haunting choir of six (oddly only four are credited in the programme), the scenes are set and bookended by quaintly chosen folk songs, and at the close of the second half the National’s revolve comes into play to good effect as the next heir to Rutherford’s fortune becomes the sole focus of attention.

Sowerby’s prose, inspired by first-hand experience, still feels fresh and relevant today, with themes of family, love, ambition, and business tricks. It’s a knowing portrait of a family whose head sees as above all others, but whose children feel awkward in their privilege.

Anjana Vasan.
Anjana Vasan.

It’s telling that the business passes purely through the male line – at no point was Janet, bright, independent and resolute (“when I take off your boots, I wish you dead”) ever considered, nor was her aunt before her. And it is the strength of a woman which ultimately saves the family line through a detached business deal. No room for sentiment in these dark times.

Directed by Polly Findlay, and designed in a style evocative of the period by Lizzie Clachan, Rutherford and Son is a classy revival of a modern classic.

Anjana Vasan.
Anjana Vasan.

Currently running at 2hr 45 with one interval after 55 minutes, this play at no time feels forced or dragged out. It would be interesting to see Sowerby’s other work revived for a new audience.

Rutherford and Son opens at the National Theatre on 28 May.

Photo credits Johan Persson.

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Theatre review: Antigone (National Theatre)

Sophocles seems to be in the air this week, following the BFI Southbank screenings of Oedipus the King/Oedipus Tyrannus on Thursday night, and now this current production of Antigone, the third of the ‘Theban Trilogy’, at the National Theatre next door to the BFI.

This production of Antigone, directed by Polly Findlay, uses the same translation by Don Taylor which also featured in the 1986 BBC broadcast of the play (with Juliet Stevenson as Antigone and John Shrapnel as Creon). Here, in a modern dress production which opens with a scene reminiscent of the much-reproduced photograph of President Obama and his close followers watching the death of Osama Bin Laden, where Creon and his ‘court’ are summoned around a flickering television on which we suppose is the depiction of the final battle between the two sons of Oedipus and Jocasta.

These sons are proclaimed, one a hero, one a traitor, and the traitor will be left unburied and to pollute the atmosphere, much to the consternation of Antigone, who sees her correct course in obeying the decrees of the Gods only, and not the King, her uncle Creon. Creon sees the State and the Statesman as one, and any relaxation of authority to be weakness – even the urging of his son Haemon to listen to others and take counsel falls on deaf ears, and through the words of the Chorus (here arranged as in a press room) and the predictions of the soothsayer Teiresias, we see how even the mightiest of men can be wrong, and therefore fall.

Antigone is played by Jodie Whittaker, her Northern accent jarring with her pleas for being the last of the daughters of Kings – but she is very good, especially in the scene where she calls to the Gods to protect her against the cruelty of man. As Creon, Christopher Eccleston is full of misplaced pride – and in reflecting on this character as he appeared in the first Theban Play (Oedipus Rex), wanting a quiet life only until forced to become Regent for the small sons of Oedipus, when that mighty King fell from favour, it is fascinating to see him here making the same mistakes of pride that afflicted his brother-in-law. He sees himself as supreme and above the power of the Gods, he pre-empts them, and he will pay for it.

In modern dress the play still works within a setting rich with politics and corruption, and the use of glass rooms and mirrors allows characters to wander in and out of settings where they do not belong, and for the audience to see multiples of the same character as they soliloquise. At a spare ninety-five minutes, this production zips along, and although the storyline may seem unbelievable now, it feels relevant, as the playwright still has something to say after all these years.