“It’s only rich folk can keep theirselves tae theirselves. Folk like us huv tae depend on their neighbours when they’re needin help”
Men Should Weep is a play by Ena Lamont Stewart, voted as one of the top 100 English language plays of the twentieth century but has been very rarely performed. A programme note suggests that it was O H Mavor’s dismissal of her talent that prevented her from developing further as a playwright and stifling her reputation and it was crushingly sad to find out that the real appreciation of her work as a classic and its placing in said poll came too late for her as her memory had gone by then and she passed away in 2006. So this is an important revival in that sense, spearheaded by Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre Josie Rourke’s directorial debut at the National, but in its look at the everyday life of people in poverty, it rings with an ominous political resonance given the news in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review and the effect it will have on the poorest in our society. This was the third preview, so all the usual caveats apply.
Set in the 1930s, the impoverished years of the Great Depression, in the crowded working-class slums of the Gorbals in the East End of Glasgow, it follows one family’s struggle for survival in a tough world. Working mother of seven Maggie is the lynchpin of this family but has to deal with an unemployed husband who won’t demean himself to do any domestic work, the return of a troublesome son and his wife to an already over-crowded home, one child with TB, another longing to fly to family coop and a gaggle of over-bearing friends and neighbours.
Depressing as it might sound, it actually proves to be quite an uplifting affair. The focus is more on the ways in which people survive rather than the sheer awfulness of their life and so there’s actually quite a lot of comedy in here, people using humour to get through the day no matter how grim it may seem. And so gender roles are discussed with a resigned acceptance that they’ll never change, the trials of bringing up children of all ages are endlessly dissected and the importance of a strong sense of community is never under-estimated.
As Maggie, Sharon Small is excellent at showing how then, and even so now, it is women who bear the brunt of holding families and households together in times of extreme poverty, with a performance of great dignity which only cracks under great duress in a truly moving scene where she finally snaps. Her relationship with Robert Cavanah’s John is very well observed too, she’s careful to avoid every little thing that might set him off, but there’s a real tenderness in their love for each other which endures even through his pained feeling of emasculation at not being able to provide for his family. Cavanah is good but I felt he could afford to go a little bit darker with his characterisation given his circumstances.
The canniest casting though is in the neighbours and in particular in securing Karen Dunbar, one of Scotland’s funniest comedians, as Mrs Harris. What this play carefully shows is the importance of the social network that these women formed in their domestic lives: they might not like each other but they respect and need the support that is offered by others going through the same situation and I enjoyed this play the most when it was these women sat round the kitchen table, chewing the fat. Dunbar is excellent as is Isabelle Joss, but special mention too has to go to Louise Montgomery, thrown in at the deep end as an understudy for the indisposed Jayne McKenna as Maggie’s loving (if a little preachy) sister Lily. Elsewhere, I enjoyed Morven Christie’s coldly manipulative Isa, Anne Downie’s as the ever-grumbling but sweetly funny Granny and Sarah MacRae’s Jenny whose bolshiness and personal drive ends up pointing towards a brighter future.
Bunny Christie’s design is a startling effective and realistic representation of a tenement building, complete with staircase that leads both up and down from the letterbox perspective that is used to focus in on the Morrisons’ apartment. What this also allows is slices of all the surrounding flats to be viewed throughout the play as well, giving occasional glimpses into the lives carrying on around our central family whether it is eavesdropping, domestic violence or simply making the dinner. It is a nice trick and for once, missing out on the cheaper seats and having to fork out for a centre stalls seat in the middle of the Lyttelton proved to be a boon as I think you’d actually miss a fair bit from the front few rows. Michael Bruce provides a lovely jaunty jazz-inflected soundtrack but whilst James Farncombe’s lighting is mostly nicely atmospheric, I think it’s a shame that they had to go the step further and add one particular effect which isn’t really necessary and put me more in mind of Celebrity Squares than anything.
Lamont Stewart wrote the play as a direct attempt to get the experience of the working classes in the voice of the working classes onto the stage and so it performed in period Glasgow dialect and the mostly Scottish company have the accent down to a t. As an alumnus of the University of Glesga, I had little problem understanding the actors and none of the dialect is so impenetrable that it is hard to work out what they are referring to, but it is something to be aware of. The American couple next to us felt like they were missing some of the nuances of the humour and I had to translate a few words for them. Perhaps a wee glossary of some the key terms could have been included in the programme but I don’t think the dialogue should be tampered with too much before opening night as it seriously runs the risk of losing its authenticity.
So an interesting, and important, piece of programming, offering a chance to see a neglected piece of quality work with a strong ensemble. And as a piece of social realism, its timing is eerily apposite: “I dinnae ken whit those old buggers in parliament are doing wit mah money”.