Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 3 August 2019
The rediscovery of Githa Sowerby in the 1990s is very satisfying. At its premiere in 1913 critics saw the quality of this one but were dismayed at its female origin: “You might suspect her of eating chocolates or talking nonsense in the shade…never dream that she could be the author of a play with the grim force of a Pinero or the sureness of a Galsworthy.”
Actually it is more like Ibsen: a new-century’s howl of irritated perception at the imprisoning absurdities of society. Not just the submission of women but the class structure: all the characters are stuck in a world where a self-made Northern industrial patriarch has educated and drawn his children upmarket and thus marooned them in a world where neither the village nor the gentry talk to them.
Sowerby knew the turf: old Rutherford, like her own grandfather, runs a glassworks: she has the tech at her fingertips when the talk is of colliery strikes or experimental work with a muffle furnace and a new formula (invented by the weak ambitious son John, whose blustering hope for a quick fortune reminds one irresistibly of today’s digital startup dreamers).
But she also has the psychology right, and much of the play’s brilliance lies in a sideline (perhaps rather feminine) observation of male behaviour and female entrapment, almost rueful sometimes in its even handedness. Rutherford is a singleminded workaholic and a bully, but vulnerable: his closest relationship is the uneven but necessary one with Martin the foreman, and his fear of being gossiped about and laughed at is a throbbing Achilles heel.
The shadow of the late wife, who “spoiled with poetry books” the eldest son is never far off. The bombast and vapid ambition of son John is drawn with pitiless accuracy, rendered in a curious half-posh accent by Sam Troughton, yet his wife Mary’s devastating understanding of him at is shaded with maternal protectiveness. Richard, the other son, is a pale prayerful dolt, “bullied into a fool”. And as for the workingman Martin, his piteous emotional enslavement to the Master is almost horribly evoked by Joe Armstrong in his panicked, collapsing scene with Janet. Drawn into three kinds of betrayal as the tales goes on, he is depicted with both contempt and compassion.
I last saw it in 2013 in Halifax under Jonathan Miller, and Polly Findlay’s production is subtler still. Not least because Roger Allam is old Rutherford, and his strength is in subtlety. He rises to the roaring bullying tone at the few times it is necessary, and has the drop-dead dry timing to deliver lines like the one to his curate son Richard about there being no shortage of ways to shirk “and religion is as good as any”. But equally eloquent is his stillness: sitting foursquare, so secure in pitiless authority that shouting is redundant because folk will do what he wants, end of. So when real shock shakes him at the news of Janet’s closeness to Martin he gets up, roams about visibly losing that gravitational smugness, and cannot rest still until he has bent back his “servant” Martin to obedience and thrown out his daughter.
Every detail in Lizzie Clachan’s firelit period set underlines the captivity of Sowerby’s time and world. Barbara Marten as the scornful aunt mocks the bows – “trash fit for a monkey at a fair” on the baby-bonnet sewn by the daughter-in-law Mary . Anjana Vasan as Mary is not only excellent in herself but clever casting: Sowerby made her a clerical worker despised as lower-class, but her Asian colouring gives an extra modern bite to sneers about “marriages like yours”. Sally Rogers as the harridan mother of a pilfering worker has a bravura cameo, and lights the final fuse on the family’s dissolution. Psychology, social rage, human sadness and betrayal move in an elegant circle, and Findlay’s direction doesn’t miss a beat of it.
box office nationaltheatre.org.uk to 3 August