Review – Men Should Weep, National Theatre

Saturday 23 October 2010

Och, if only the Whingers hudnae been gigglin’ at the back of the class like the auld bufter dafties they are and had paid more attention when they attended Stanley Baxter‘s School of Glaswegian Language (see instructional videos below) they might have grasped what Men Should Weep at the National Theatre was al aboot.

But, mibbe, some of Baxter’s lessons did sink in all those years ago when wee bits came back tae them and they began tae get their heids roon Ena Lamont Stewart‘s dialogue about halfway through the first act.

It’s written in a cunning code in which each vowel sound is carefully replaced with a different one so that “dropped down dead” for example is delivered as “drapped doon deed” and “no more” becomes “nay mayer”. All very confusing.

Anyway, according tae our very reliable source the 1947 play what Ena Lamont Stewart wrote took her just two days and during the sluggish first hour (of three) that wasnae hard tae believe. One might describe it as a slow burn, were there coal to burn. But the play is set in the clatty household of the Morrison faimly during the 1930s depression. The family lives in poverty so grinding that a tin of baked beans between them is a treat and knickers are a luxury. Indeed they are so poor that they will make do with any vowels they can get their hands on, they’re not fussy.

And that’s about it. There’s a cast of about 20 including an ungrateful daughter determined to escape the poverty, a hen-packed son, a siren of a daughter in law, a child with TB and a supporting cast of head-lice.

Sadly it doesn’t really perk up until Act III but it’s all very well drawn, well played, well staged (the director is The Bush Theatre’s Josie Rourke) and a timely reminder of what poverty used to mean – and may mean again before long – when football boots and a wireless were pipe dreams, healthcare for the poor relied on charity and flat screen TVs were not considered one of life’s basic entitlements.

But if the Government’s Spending Review may see poverty becoming fashionable again, the New Age of Austerity has yet to envelop the National Theatre: this really is one of the most conspicuously extravagant sets we have seen since, well, Bunny Christie’s last designs at the National.

Although the action pretty much takes place in one room the designer has provided three floors of the boggin tenement building complete with stairways to the left and fartstack rooms to the right. In fact the upper floor is cut off so you only see the feet of the people upstairs (and from the front rows of the stalls rarely even those).

And it wasn’t until the Whingers returned somewhat reluctantly for the second half (more than a wee few dinnae return) that they realised that from certain seats the floor below the family’s apartment is also visible.

Between scenes bars of light divide up the nine playing areas so it didnae look so much like a Glasgow tenement as a Gorbals Celebrity Squares with all the action performed by a host of Rab C Nesbit impersonators in Willie Rushton’s central box.

Phil just about resisted screaming out “Hello Bobby”, “Hello Pattie” during the scene changes.

It was all in rather a strange contrast to the poverty depicted and Andrew found himself getting quite uncomfortable about the expenditure. Yes, one values the arts, but mightn’t the arts show a bit of humility? Phil wondered if Andrew might be getting a bit political and made a mental note to stop listening although happily now that his lugholes were adjusted to their Glasgae setting, Andrew’s pronouncements seemed even more than usually to be mere background noises.

Of course it was thrilling to see someone opening a can live on stage with an old fashioned can-opener but it did all seem rather sluggish, rambling and long (3 hours). It wasn’t getting many laughs either. Still, this was an early preview. Understudy Louise Montgomery made an impressive substitution as Lily Gibb.

There were some physical casting problems too –  Jenny (Sarah MacRae) seemed far too old to be Maggie’s (Sharon Small 43) daughter and both she and Isa (Morven Christie) seemed too high born. Still, it was nice to see a character named after a tax-efficient savings vehicle. Another character was called John Morrison.

And for that genuine sense of poverty there should have been  more TB on the stage than in the auditorium, which clearly was not the case the night we went.

But we did enjoy the miserable gran complaining there’s chocolate on only one side of her biscuit, followed by a live-on-stage dunking disaster.

Still, it was an education and the Whingers are now so immersed in our Glasgae lessons that we’d like to pass on a useful phrase, which probably should be applied to us at all times: ”stoapyerguernin” which translates “kindly refrain from whining”.

Rating

Footnotes

Before you attend Men Should Weep we suggest watching these short instructional films and you’ll probably get much more out of your evening than we did:

16 Responses to “Review – Men Should Weep, National Theatre”

  1. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Periodically down the years, one or another member of my family would gratuitously pipe up, “Zarra marra in yer barra, Clara?”

  2. C Temple Says:

    Although I admire the sentiments of the playwright when she wrote it in the 1940s – I also believe now, that she never experienced it first hand and wrote it as a onlooker. I was born in the area that the play depicted, in the fifties. I attended the first night with my 23 yr old daughter, I was looking forward to her being able to see an interpertation of what living in a tenement was like, the strength and humour that the people had,to survive such bleak times, which I often speak about. I believe in artistic licence – it went beyond that for me, I never knew anyone who lived in a two bedroom tenament and had a living/kitchen/sleeping area that you could park a double decker bus on! The rooms were so small you would need a shoe horn at times to allow people to visit! We left at the interval – being frequent theatre goers it was the first time we have ‘walked’before the end of a production. Director and Producer hang your head in shame!!

  3. Nina Says:

    I agree with views expressed about the play which I saw this weekend (although I don’t have direct experience to draw on it just FELT wrong/OTT). I agree even more about the extravagance of the set. I hope the National Theatre PR team is going to button its collective lip when/if any cuts to its subsidy are announced and they just get on with a “let’s do the show right here” attitude.
    And on the subject of their redevelopment plans – don’t get me started. Wrong place but definitely right time if I can find a blog on the subject.

  4. Robert L Says:

    When oh when oh WHEN are you going to review Onassis!!?!?!? PLEASE!!!! (It could be your best ever!)

  5. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Agreed about Nonentity Squares (© Ian Herbert), but as for the room being too big, really, come on! It’s THEATRE! When staging the play in a sizeable venue, what do you suggest doing with the 90%+ of the stage that’s surplus to the requirements of strict historical/architectural fidelity? Or should it be done in an authentically cramped space such that most of the audience won’t be able to see what’s going on? Or maybe it should only be produced in theatres small enough to correspond to the “proper” dimensions… which would rule out anything as big as, say, the Etcetera… which is the smallest theatre in London? Hmmm?

  6. BigChiefRunningBore Says:

    If only the play had half the laughs of this review. Lessons in comic timing required in addition to accents.
    Although did enjoy it.

  7. sandown Says:

    The Lyttelton has the widest prosecenium stage in the country. The architect who built the National had never built a theatre before, and he was evidently more familiar with the dimensions of a cinema screen.

    What the designer normally has to do for fourth-wall naturalism is to build a box set, put it on a kind of electrical trolley, and trundle it on and off the main stage as needed — bearing in mind that it will be playing in repertory with other plays/sets.

    All credit to director Josie Rourke, though, who does usually work at the Bush in a room the size of a Glasgow tenement lavvy.


  8. @C Temple Says:

    We left at the interval – being frequent theatre goers it was the first time we have ‘walked’before the end of a production.

    …well, as frequent theatre-goers I’m surprised you don’t walk more often.

    Was Hamlet Danish enough for you? I wasn’t sure myself – not enough snow, you see. As for other shows at the National – Revengers Tragedy (projected images weren’t really enough), London Assurance (that Manor House was too small to be real)and Much Ado and Alls Well they were all speaking bloody poetry. I’ve heard in some theatres they actually sing at each other – what is that all about?

    It’s THEATRE. If you want total ‘realism’, whatever that even means, try Eastenders or Take The High Road might be more up your alley.

    • C Temple Says:

      Thank you so much, for your kind and thoughtful reply. I found it very touching, your empathy showed through with each word, how gracious of you.

      May I be so bold to ask…..Were you born and brought up in the Gorbals?

      Yes?

      If not, may I suggest that…. ‘yah get yersel oot mare, wid hate tae think, yer missin oot in gettin a life’. I dae a wee bit awe life coachin, oan the side…. gais a shout, nae bother, I kin fit yah in as an emergency. Oh and…….. ‘Haud yer wheesht!!

      An apology for not replying sooner, but one has a life.

      With warmest kindest regards

  9. dovydas Says:

    I will remember Men Should Weep at the National for two reasons – one of a great show and another of the ignorance and, ehem, stupidity of some people. At the interval a woman next to me asked if I am Scottish (I am from Lithuania), because she was amazed I could follow the plot. But the top gag of the evening was being whispered behind me. An overheard conversation by two respected-age English ladies: ‘I just don’t understand why do they have to speak Scottish. We are in London, so they should speak English or at least have the subtitles’. I could not believe my ears.

  10. Davhuw Says:

    agree with the point about acclimatising to the accent-it took me most of the first act,but come the interval,when someone thanked me for allowing them to pass,I replied ‘Nae Prablem’,so I had obviously learned something ! LOVED the set and most of the performances,but I think the actress playing Isa was left over from the National’s amazing production of Rattigan’s ‘After The Dance’ !!

  11. hja Says:

    As an English woman who spent 9 years in scotland, I was ashamed of my English compatriots when I saw Men Should Weep this week. Invited by friends from Scotland, I felt priveleged to understand the nuances not just of the time, poverty and humour but also of the social differences between our two countries. My Scottish friends describe me as an honorary scot and that always makes me proud. After reading most of this ignorant drivel, my pride swells. How can you complain that there was insufficient humour whilst saying you could not follow the dialect? Do you express the same disgust if you buy tickets for a play in Mandarin or Czech? It is typical English bigotry that expects a scottish play to be sanitised for home county speakers of RP. Some of you need to get out a bit more.

  12. Micky Nieman Says:

    Saw Men Should Weep on November 17. Thought it was wonderful. Yes, it was hard to understand at times, but so is some English.

  13. Jim McMillan Says:

    Why did you go to a preview?

    I’m Scottish and I loved it. The main review above does not do it justice. I didn’t hear any complaints at the interval or at the end about the dialect. I did hear prolonged warm applause.

    I hope the National take the play and cast to Glasgow.

  14. Anne Fox Says:

    I saw this yesterday 9/01/11. Having been to many RSC productions and had to ‘tune’ in to unfamiliar language, I am bewildered as to why anyone going to see Men Should Weep would not have been aware of the use of Scottish dialect. I loved the play. As a child of the fifties from the Glasgow area, I identified with much of the goings-on, and recognised many familiar women in my childhood. Well done to the NT for bringing this gem to the London stage. Shame it doesn’t have a longer run , it was a sell out yesterday.

  15. Tom Says:

    The National Theatre of Scotland are presenting the play at the Citizens Theatre from 16th Sept before a Scottish tour. Lets nae be stupid when speakin aboot dialects and such. It wouldnae be a true reflection of the setting and the Glasgow was of life/humour if it was delivered in RP. Don’t be ignorant. If ye cannae understand it it shows that you are the one with the problem – nae the dialect.


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