Sharon Small as Maggie Morrison in Men Should Weep
“It’s only rich folk can keep theirselves tae theirselves. Folk like us huv tae depend on their neighbours when they’re needin help.” Josie Rourke’s new production of Men Should Weep takes Ena Lamont Stewart’s Glasgow tenement-based play, and gives it the National Theatre treatment*.
(*Big sets, impressive production, issue ridden, fantastic cast, but somehow slightly lacking in heart.)
Men Should Weep’s script tells the story of 1930s poverty in Glasgow from the point of view of mum-of-seven Maggie Morrison. It’s a pretty brutal existence, where a slice of bread and jam is a treat, and a tin of beans a luxury. In wickedly strong Glesga accents (you really have to listen when it all kicks off, and be ready for words like ken, clatty, middens and wains), matriarch Maggie tries to hold together her family of unemployed husband, unhelpful granny, ungrateful teenagers and unhealthy children.
Rourke and her designer Bunny Christie have both enlarged and shrunk this world with an incredible only-at-the-National set which reveals, dolls-house style, slices of the rooms to above, below and to left and right, as well as the communal staircase and toilet. So while the play goes on in centre, we see glimpses of those neighbours: the domestic violence, eavesdropping, cooking, living, and understand what we’re seeing is just part of an even bigger, sadder world.
But Men Should Weep is less grim than this premise might suggest. There’s lots of humour here. The later scenes where those nosy neighbours all come together are wonderful: it felt like a rare treat to see so many strong, well-written women on stage. Sharon Small’s performance as Maggie is brilliant: warm and resilient, but stretched close to breaking-point too.
With its flashes of comedy (we loved Granny’s complaint about there only being chocolate on one side of the biscuit), brutality (the sharp pang of horror when nasty daughter-in-law Isa trampled over her in-laws’ damp insubstantial bedding in a perfectly placed gold stiletto), and sadness (when a younger son ends up in hospital with TB), Men Should Weep impressed, but ultimately left us strangely unmoved.
While the characters on stage wrestled with all-absorbing poverty, we struggled with distractions from our fellow audience members. Chinese-whispering school kids in front: “If I have to watch any more of this I”LL DIE pass-it-on”; sloshed wine-smuggling baby boomers behind: “Don’t pour it all out, save some FOR YOU”. If you’re luckier with your seats, you’ll be treated to an extremely classy production of a pretty astonishing play, full of honest performances and even a couple of painful timely references. Remember to snort knowingly when they say: “I dinnae ken whit those old buggers in Parliament are doing wit mah money.”