Pic: Louise McCarthy and Lorraine McIntosh Pic: Manuel Harlan
Published in the Guardian
The tenement flat is claustrophobic, cramped and colourless. There is no room for manoeuvre between sink, table and bed, yet new people constantly arrive and are somehow absorbed. In Ena Lamont Stewart's 1947 slice-of-life tragedy, the inhabitants are caged creatures who can do nothing but lash out.
So when Arthur Johnstone walks on stage between scenes to sing a working-class folk song, he brings a heady shift in perspective. On the one hand, he offers a release from the grim intensity of so much 1930s deprivation, piled on by Lamont Stewart in an unflinching vision of poverty's social consequences. For the audience to join in The Day We Went to Rothesay, O' is like coming up for air.
On the other hand, Johnstone's songs put the play in a tradition of socialist dissent: "We've been yoked to the plough since time first began" goes The Workers' Song. These full-voiced songs emphasise that the hardships of Men Should Weep are not an anomaly, but part of a pattern. Like the scene of modern deprivation (shell suits, corrugated iron and barbed wire) that frames Graham McLaren's powerful production for the National Theatre of Scotland, the songs give this brutally unsentimental play a political and historical context.
Likewise, playing the stoic matriarch Maggie, Lorraine McIntosh brilliantly conveys the sense of being a product of her economic circumstances. She is merciless in criticising her neighbours, ferocious in disciplining her children, and vocal in her complaint that there is "nae work for the men, but aye plenty for the women".
Yet, behind her fury, she shows us a good-hearted woman making the most of the little she's got. As our own government demonises the poor, hers is an example as pertinent as ever.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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