Edwardian family at war in the industrial north

It may figure in the National Theatre’s list of the top 100 plays of the last century, but Rutherford and Son does not ring many bells with the public at large and its author, Githa Sowerby,  is not exactly a household name.

Tuesday, 5th February 2019, 14:32 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 16:44 pm

Caroline Steinbeis, who is directing a production which opens at the Crucible on Friday, thinks its time has come.

It was written in 1912 and was very much ahead of its time in challenging the role and expectations of women in the male dominated industrial North of England.

In her capacity as associate director of Sheffield Theatres she read it when looking at a number of potential plays. “I made such a strong connection and I said it’s phenomenal we have got to do it now,” she recalls. “It was a lucky coincidence that Rob {Hastie, artistic director} felt the same

“There was a lucky set of circumstances that it was available. The National have a production coming up after us and several companies were reading it. It’s odd how that sometimes happens and it certainly shows the resonance it has.”

The titular Rutherford, played by Game of Thrones’ Owen Teale,  rules his household with tyranny and disdain that none of his three grown-up children is qualified to take over the family glassworks business, The siblings Janet, John and Richard have dreams of their own but none can break free.

“I related to it because I recognise the huge amount of my own family in this,” says the German-born director. “When you have strong father figures who put pressure on the family to conform to a world view you are going to get that reaction. My grandfather was not Rutherford but there are parallels in my  family that I felt physically when  reading it.”

The play premiered in 1912 at the Royal Court and then ran  in the West End, later transferring to New York.

“It was a massive success but at first nobody knew who GK Sowerby was and there was even bigger impact when it was later revealed that a play of that magnitude had been written by a woman,” says the director.

Githa Sowerby came from a family of industrialists, glass manufacturers  in Newcastle where the play is set.

“A lot of the characters are based on her family. She herself was a smart educated woman. We have been looking for clues into her background. She’s very little known as the title of her biography,  Searching for Githa, suggests. She was apparently deliberately vague in interviews during her life. She went on to write and publish books for children and died in 1970.”

Rutherford wasn’t performed much after 1912 until the 1980s saw the first of the few modern revivals. “She wrote three other plays without success and she rather fell into oblivion.  Probably because the First World War came along and things changed and people didn’t see the world in the same way,” observes Steinbeis.

“The play is saying that the market or capitalism is stronger than the family. Through the course of the play Rutherford loses all his children because relationships break down. They don’t feel they are being heard and all leave .. He is left without a legacy.

“There’s a twist at the end which I think is going to bring the house down. The daughter in law returns because she has to secure her livelihood. She makes an offer to Rutherford and that’s the only time when two characters see eye to eye when they make their transaction. I believe in family and come from a very strong family so to read that was so shocking. It was shocking when it was written and possibly more so now than back then.”

Rutherford and Son runs at the Crucible from February 8-23.