A week after the British government announced the harshest public spending cuts since WWII, the National Theater revisits those dark days, courtesy of Ena Lamont Stewart’s 1947 play, “Men Should Weep.” A slice of working-class life set in a dingy Glasgow tenement block, Lamont Stewart’s sole career success focuses on women’s experience of grinding poverty. But, in a lavish — too lavish? — production by rookie NT director Josie Rourke, there’s nothing kitchen-sink dreary about the play, which meets misery and frustration with equal parts camaraderie, humor and family love.
Famously rediscovered in 1982 by the agitprop theater group 7:84, Lamont Stewart’s play is often thought of as left-wing. It’s not, particularly; it’s just compassionate toward people whose lives, at the time, were often overlooked by dramatists. Housewife and jobbing cleaner Maggie Morrison (Sharon Small) is struggling to keep her family afloat. Husband John (Robert Cavanah), who is in and out of work, is loving but prone to fits of rage and injured pride. Eldest daughter Jenny (Sarah MacRae) sneers at the squalor she’s been born into; her mummy’s-boy brother Alec (Pierce Reid) has made a bad marriage with hard-hearted vamp Isa (Morven Christie). And Maggie’s little boy, diagnosed with TB, has been removed to a sanatorium. “There’s nae work for the men,” as Maggie remarks, “but aye (always) plenty for the women.”
The play doesn’t resolve her dilemmas. “Men Should Weep” is less concerned with plot than with representing Maggie’s plight faithfully onstage. There’s no great emotional climax — but there are stirring tremors along the way, as when Jenny confronts her father with his failure to provide for his family, and Maggie squares off with her conniving daughter-in-law. Elsewhere, the play’s satisfactions are circumstantial. We’re drawn deeply into a world where a tin of beans is an extraordinary treat and the purchase of a red hat is impossibly decadent. But if there’s no money, there’s neighborly solidarity, and ready laughter at a grandmother (Anne Downie) who loses her chocolate biscuit in her tea.
The play is almost as harsh as the economy on the men in Maggie’s world who range from violent to feckless and back again. That said, Cavanah is hugely sympathetic as John, battling for his dignity in a world whose patriarchal certainties are crumbling. There are some wobbly accents among the younger cast members. And designer Bunny Christie’s set, which shows us the entire building in cross-section, including the rooms above, below and beside the Morrisons’, makes an impression more of extravagance than poverty. But that hardly diminishes the enduring effectiveness of Lamont Stewart’s calloused and characterful portrait of 1940s Scots on the rocks.