Ena Lamont Stewart’s landmark play of 1947, Men Should Weep, is set against a backdrop of desperate, hand-to-mouth poverty. The play is set in the dilapidated Glasgow tenement flat of the Morrison family in the 1930s and charts the family’s many hardships and small triumphs as felt by Maggie, the family’s care-worn yet sympathetic matriarch. Lamont Stewart’s play explores working class life during the depression era and gives a voice to the figure most often caricatured or marginalised: the working class woman.
Men Should Weep depicts the devastating consequences that poverty has on family life; though the setting is domestic the play is political in its intentions. By allowing these eight female characters to be heard, by allowing them to speak about the strains of raising children and keeping house while living with men who are struggling to find work, she creates a powerful portrait of what it is to live in these conditions.
1930’s Glasgow is impressively recreated by Colin Richmond’s set with its low ceilings, condensed rooms and laundry lines; it allows the audience to study the characters in a way that is almost intrusive – it’s like peering into a dolls’ house. The scene changes are performed by the cast with the house lights up, so that even these traditionally unseen moments can be observed, emphasising the lack of privacy within the tenement.
At times it feels as if there is almost too much action on stage: there are stirrings in bedrooms while brawls take place outside and we frequently hear the echo of a tubercular cough. This lack of space, this claustrophobia, shapes the characters’ actions. They can storm off but they can never completely get away; even newly-weds Alec and Isa (tenderly played by Charlene Boyd) are obliged to live with his parents. In this pressure-cooker environment, people inevitably – and frequently – snap leading to scenes of realistic, if slightly slapstick, fighting.
During the scene changes the characters sing poignant Scottish folk songs, which the audience heartily joins in with. This eagerness of the audience to become part of Lamont Stewart’s world, to make felt their connection with the characters on stage, emphasises the importance of this play in the Scottish canon, but also sabotages these moments and stopped them from being truly moving. There was also a lot of energetic clapping and cheering whenever someone made a comments about economic recession or the corruption of the government.
Graham McLaren’s production for the National Theatre of Scotland is engaging even if it sometimes labours the sentimentality of the play. The set, although cramped and shabby, lacks the feeling of desperate dampness, the taint of disease, and many of the performers look a bit too perky for people living these conditions. Lorraine McIntosh gives a powerful performance as Maggie, ferocious and strong, a fighter, yet not without warmth.
Nostalgia, as Liz Lochhead noted, is Scotland’s ‘national pastime’ but the stoic Scottishness of these characters with their indomitable fighting spirit is perhaps overplayed. McLaren’s production contains a few too many laughs to really do justice to the hard-hitting world of the play; the songs provide easy, if welcome, release. But it remains a compelling and well acted piece even if it doesn’t quite reach the depths of the poverty Lamont Stewart was documenting, the raw desperation, the sense of being caged and unable to escape.