Voted in a National Theatre poll as one of the top 100 plays of the last century, Men Should Weep is presented by the Bush theatre’s Artistic Director Josie Rourke, who makes her National debut with Ena Lamont Stewart’s masterpiece.
Filling the vast Lyttelton theatre, a beautiful doll’s house set allows the audience to spy into kitchens, bedrooms and hallways exposed on stage. But Bunny Christie’s design is not portraying lavish Victorian glamour or a cross section of a grand mansion, instead the set encompasses the poverty and starkness of a 1930s Glasgow tenement.
The Morrison family inhabits two rooms of the set, with a baby, three boisterous children, an older daughter threatening to leave home, a doting son Alec and his less than doting wife Isa, an ageing grandmother who keep threatening to die and lastly, confined to sleeping on a mattress in the kitchen, Maggie and her husband John, all squashed into the one flat. Throw in a selection of lively neighbours and extended family members constantly gossiping around the kitchen table and a sense of claustrophobia should rightly wash over you.
But amongst the clutter and stained walls of their home is a family drawn together by laughter and human spirit. Throughout the turmoil Maggie faces – her husband’s unemployment, their son’s struggle with tuberculosis, Jenny’s flirtations with different men and Alec’s moral disintegration – her immense strength is made apparent by a compelling Sharon Small who plays her with a robust feistiness that leaves only the smallest flicker of vulnerability visible.
Written in 1947, Lamont Stewart’s play feels ahead of its time. Women are given the pivotal roles and are the controlling forces in their families and marriages. As Maggie says, in the economic depression they find themselves in, there are no jobs for the men, but plenty for the women. And work they do, cleaning other people’s houses, looking after their large families, barely sleeping and providing moral support to their husbands who go out each day to stand on the streets waiting for work to come their way.
Men Should Weep is refreshingly absent of clichés. Maggie and John are happily in love, but they are not without their violent outbursts and his much mentioned tee-total status hints at a less rosy past, while their poverty is neither glamorised or at the heart of their lives.
Although Christie’s set could be criticised for its size – the fact the kitchen can fit the family in all at once with space still to swing a cat is probably a slight over exaggeration – and its lack of any real decay hardly lends itself to the doom and gloom of the text, it is arguably the star of the show. While Maggie leads the story in the kitchen, Christie’s design allows the audience to watch the next door neighbour get changed for bed, Isa smoke sulkily in the bedroom while Granny sleeps in the bed next to her, and Mrs Wilson being pelted black and blue by her abusive drunk husband.
The result is a play with constant movement and a panoramic view into the tenants’ lives. In these current times of economic trouble, it offers a perspective into true poverty and looks at the morality of the tempting escape routes on offer.