Scotland is holding its own culturally speaking in that there London at the moment. As if to deliberately contradict professional controversialist, and boringly predictable, David Starkey’s recent claim that Glasgow is a provincial, state funded, back water (I’m paraphrasing here, but that was his gist) the most successful art exhibition in town is the Glasgow Boys retrospective at The Royal Academy, and the most talked about theatre is the National Theatre’s production of Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep.
Set in Glasgow’s East End in the 1930’s Lamont Stewart’s play was an instant success when it was first performed by the Glasgow Unity Theatre in 1948, doing enough to be transferred to London, and has been intermittently revived over the decades since, perhaps most notably by 7:84. Its current acclaimed run in the Lyttleton Theatre at The National proves that this play has an enduring tale to tell, one that has particular poignancy in times of recession.
But Men Should Weep is not a piece of agit-prop theatre. It is a subtle, and often funny, play that never forgets the humanity behind the poverty. This is not the lecturing, worthy, drama that you may be expecting. Any production I’ve seen has understood that it is partly about space, both physical and personal, and the staging depicts the strain on the Morrison family home, where three generations, including six children, reside in what is basically a room and kitchen.
The characters are wonderfully written, remaining distinctly individual when they could have been used purely to make social statements. Dreams are limited but not crushed by circumstances. The family are held together by Maggie Morrison, the family matriarch who manages to keep her head among the often chaotic lives of her family. It is through her reactions, often in private moments, that the audience understands the circumstances and politics which define the play.
The last act is packed with passion, emotion and action that is a result of the pressure which has been slowly building throughout. It’s a powerful end to a play which is deceptively charming, at least to begin with. Lamont Stewart persuades audiences to care about the characters on stage, to empathise with them rather than pity them. She shows happy times as well as sad, although the spectre of poverty is constant, and this is the key to the plays success. When the last act is played out the audience is no longer simply spectating, but is actively involved, becoming part of the communal experience.
From the National production here are Sharon Small and Karen Dunbar discussing the play:
The new production of Men Should Weep is a timely reminder of what real poverty entails, and that we have a duty to make sure things never get this bad again. With swathing cuts promised to the social services and unemployment set to soar a play is not going to make the difference, but it may make a difference which is what the best art strives for.