Set in the tenement flats of Glasgow, this production is a raw, emotional and funny portrayal of working class life during the Great Depression.
The play was written by Ena Lamont Stewart in 1947. She was a socialist, and married to a socialist who acted with the radical Glasgow Unity Theatre.
It can sound like a bleak prospect—going to a play about the horrors of poverty in Glasgow’s slums while we are in our own crisis.
But the play is so alive that this is not so—and the characters are a
powerful reminder of the importance of community and unity for working class people.
References to the burden on women in society are a theme throughout the play. The central character, Maggie, has given birth to six children, cares for her mother-in-law, and her husband is frequently out of work.
She is proud of her children and her life is full of love. But the burdens on her life are many—the house is in a constant tangle of clothes, children, visitors and dishes.
Everyone is always hungry, and Maggie goes without so her family and friends can eat slivers of bread with jam.
But among the grey-stained walls and stale bread there is happiness and humour.
Women neighbours frequently come to Maggie’s home, to chat and exchange stories, but also for warmth and comfort. They are scathing of others who look down on them.
The play also depicts the battle between different generations—and how poverty has affected men and women and their expectations in life. Maggie’s grown up son and daughter, Alec and Jenny, are a huge source of stress for their parents.
Alec is wrecked by the pressure that society puts on him to provide in a world where there are no jobs.
Jenny wants the freedom her mother never had—she leaves home to live with a man she hasn’t married, and has no intention of doing so.
The lives of the family seem to hang by a thread, and tensions often erupt with people living on top of each other. Poverty has a profound effect on how the characters see themselves.
Both the men and the women are political, with Maggie saying near the start of the play, “I dinna ken whit they dirty rotten buggers in Parliament are daein wi ma money, but they’re daein something.”
This got a knowing laugh from the audience when I went to see the play.
Maggie’s husband John is visibly shaken by his inability to provide for his family and the situation they are in. “Every time I’ve had tae say ‘no’ tae you an the weans it’s doubled me up like a kick in the stomach.
“Christ Almighty! A we’ve din wrong is tae be born intae poverty! Whit dae they think this kind o life dis tae a man?
“Whiles it turns ye intae a wild animal. Whiles ye’re a human question mark, aye askin why? Why? Why? There’s nae answer. Ye end up a bent back and a heid hanging in shame for whit ye canna help.”
John joins the queues of men waiting for work. When he comes home he says, “Hundred o us, Maggie, beggin for the chance tae earn enough for food and a roof ower our heids.”
It showed that working class people are not to blame for the situations they find themselves in—and when there are no jobs there just are none.
The set of the play is a triumph. The portrayal of the tennaments, the close proximity of life, is communicated brilliantly.
There are often two scenes going on at the same time and there is no privacy. This is sometimes an asset—when a husband is beating a woman upstairs, Maggie bangs on the ceiling to make it stop.
But the stifling life of poverty and grime no doubt hinders the development of all the people in the play.
Their potential is huge, and you come away thinking that they are not victims, but people a system exploits, sometimes gets the better of, but never totally defeats in their humanity and humour.
Men Should Weep is on until 9 January at the Lyttleton Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX. Phone 020 7452 3000 or go to www.nationaltheatre.org.uk Free tickets or £5 tickets available for people aged 15 to 25 through the Entry Pass scheme