Written by Ena Lamont Stewart just two years after the end of the Second World War, Men Should Weep was first produced by Glasgow Unity Theatre in association with the Arts Council of Great Britain and performed in Glasgow’s Athenaeum Theatre. It was revived in 1982 by 7.84 Company and performed at Glasgow’s Mitchell Theatre. It has been revived more recently by various companies, significantly by the National Theatre and now the National Theatre of Scotland.
It was born in 1942 when Stewart came out of a theatre seething with annoyance at the portrayal of vacuous characters with shallow lives and asked herself what she’d like to see on stage. The answer was “Life. Real life. Real People.” And the result was the bombshell, Men Should Weep.
Stewart’s own background was not of the poorest working class, but she captured the language of that class at that time with an acute ear. Her well observed use of urban Scots should be commended as should the actors in this performance’s naturalistic use of it. The play, set in a working class east end Glasgow tenement in the midst of the Depression, focusses on the Morrison family, and in particular the mother of the Morrison family, the selfless and sair hauden doon Maggie (Lorraine McIntosh).
There are six weans in the Morrison family ranging from a young married son, Alec, and grown up daughter Jenny to baby Christopher. John, the father, is an out of work labourer so even in times of employment, there would not have been much to go around in this and other households like them. In their cramped and damp conditions, Maggie also takes her turn at looking after her old mother-in-law, Granny Morrison (Ann Scott-Jones) – a job shared with her fly and grasping sister -in -law, Lizzie (Janette Foggo).
A big bleak corrugated wall faces the audience. It is pulled back manually, to deep iron shudders that echo the closed work yards’ gates and reveal the set of the tenement flat. There is a social commentary with statistics of grim living conditions at the time as voice over, punctuated by wee Bertie’s persistent cough in the background. The rooms are cramped with people and their stuff (they might not have had much but in a small space they can seem a lot); the sink at the window is cramped with dishes that nobody but Maggie (who also skivvies elsewhere) washes, except under sufferance. And her man, whom she genuinely still warmly loves, certainly doesn’t. “Well, it’s no ma job. If it wis ma job…”
They still inhabit the separate spheres that collide for, in this case at least, loving sex, albeit in a legless bed. Their upstairs’ neighbours are less fortunate in that way, colliding noisily in violence that has to be chapped up to with a brush on the ceiling.
The slow scenes changes are carried out in subdued lighting by the cast while Arthur Johnstone sings unaccompanied songs appropriate to the play such as Ed Pickard’s The Worker’s Song and Stephen Foster’s Hard Times. This was a fantastic addition to the play and Johnstone was perfect for the role. It is a reminder of political movements that run alongside harsh financial climates. But this play shows that it takes all a starveling’s energy to get through a day never mind arising from his slumbers, though he may shake his fist at the “bliddy capitalists”.
Poverty still exists but it is a different poverty nowadays, even in this climate. Some of us in the audience have memories of lives not dissimilar to those portrayed. It is important to be reminded of the real harshness of life that may be history of some but remains a reality for many worldwide.
Tenement life in those days seemed to involve open doors and dependence on your neighbours. The play features these female neighbours and the performances of Anita Vettesse (Mrs. Harris) and Maureen Carr (Mrs. Wilson) were spot on. Their interpretation of the comic red hat scene was priceless.
At first, Maggie did not seem anguished enough; her hair not unkempt enough. The script has her combing with her fingers a lot and her sister Lily, feistily played by Julie Wilson Nimmo, is forever encouraging her to use a comb and I visualized it lank and tousie. However Lorraine McIntosh’s fine performance over rode that small concern.
It also bothered me that John was dressed more like a railway inspector than an out of work labourer. Michael Nardone’s portrayal of the character was excellent but his too neat haircut and solid brown boots did not ring true.
Charlene Boyd as Isa, was fabulous and every inch the hard, gallus tart but while the character might well have strolled about in her undies and flirted with her father-in-law, her day dress sitting at thigh length struck me as anachronistic and managed to make her look like a modern day High Street shop refugee.
Men Should Weep shows the complexities of love between husband and wife, between mothers and sons and between fathers and daughters. Oh, and between sisters. The line “nae work for men but aye plenty for the women” sums it up beautifully though the play is by no means anti-men. Life may be bleak but it is rarely monochromed. Stewart shows humour and humanity throughout. The sight of wee Bertie’s boots sitting on the table, a superstitious sign of bad luck, was laden was poignancy as they had “kep him in” the hospital.
This is punch-in-the-gut theatre showing slaps and skelps forbidden in our more enlightened times, along with desperate raw emotions; the impotent rage borne from poverty and the frustration of its impact on these unfulfilled lives. It is a privilege to experience this play.
Tue 8-Sat 12 Nov 2011 at 7.30pm and 2.30pm Sat 12 Nov
£14.50 - £27.50
The play comes to Edinburgh after a tour including Glasgow, Arbroath, Inverness and Aberdeen.
Tour continues at Perth Theatre from Tues 15 Nov until Sat 26 Nov.