Review – Men Should Weep – National Theatre

by

Once again, the National has failed to touch me with an incredibly produced and likely well-acted show. Men Should Weep is a sort of “heart warming tale” of “family togetherness” in a Depression-era Glasgow tenement. John (Robert Cavanah), the patriarch of the Morrison family, tries and fails to work with a hang-dog persistence that requires us to admire him while we can’t fail but notice that perhaps he’s not really trying that hard; he’s got his wife Maggie (Sharon Small) to carry the weight of taking care of the seven children he’s saddled her with while he expects her to serve him when he comes back from a hard day of standing on a street corner. Maggie is caught up in living for the moment, leaving little things like taking her son into the doctor to have his chronic cough treated for later because she doesn’t like to focus on the bad things. Meanwhile, the neighbors are dealing with head lice and beating each other up; somehow the Morissons come off like a bundle of love, even as the eldest son (Pierce Reed) gambles and drinks, the eldest daughter (Sarah MacRae) runs off to be a kept woman, and Granny (Anne Downie) is practically auctioned off to another family member for her pension money. It’s basically the UK as the ConDems are hoping to remake it over the course of the next few years, as everyone sells whatever they have for money but empty-pockets dad rules the roost.

Unfortunately, any ability I might have had to get interested in these characters and their lives was horribly wrecked by the thick Glaswegian dialect. I eventually got that “wains” meant children and “deed” meant dead, but for the first half hour at least the only words I caught were “Alec” and “Lily.” Even after the interval, during a key argument, I totally missed just who it was that went to jail for defrauding the policemen’s benevolent fund. I considered leaving and skipping the second act because I’d just completely failed to connect to anyone or their problems (although I was in love with Granny just a bit); instead I trudged on through the full three hours and was not rewarded for my investment of time.

I can’t fault the cast in general. Small was fabulous as the “heart of gold” mom; Sarah MacRae gave her all to her key speech that I felt certain had served many an actress attempting to prove mastery of the accent (though I found her unconvincing overall). But I just didn’t care, and not even the great supporting work from neighbors Karen Dunbar and Lindy Whiteford can change my mind. (A real thank you goes to understudy Louise Montgomery, who was not only good as Maggie’s sister Lily but also the only person in the cast I could consistently understand.) I checked: the English people surrounding me weren’t able to follow along either. The set was perfect, the accents were no doubt spot on, but these alone could not rescue the night.

I am not going to discount my dislike as due to missing at least half of the dialogue in this show. This was just not an interesting play. It has a lot of good character studies in it but that just wasn’t enough; I felt it was a lesser work overall and probably not worth the trouble of reviving so glamorously. There was no dramatic tension and I didn’t feel any evolution in any of the characters. It certainly looked poverty square in the face (or perhaps a bit rosily in the face), but … insofar as I like plays to illuminate the human condition, it just didn’t cut it. No doubt people will sing its praises, but if you find yourself yawning after the first hour, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(This preview performance took place on Tuesday, October 19th. It continues through Sunday, January 9th, 2011. For the completely opposite take, please see Ian Foster’s review. It’s a fact that we almost always see things exactly the same way: when we finally both agree, expect the universe to implode.)

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17 Responses to “Review – Men Should Weep – National Theatre”

  1. Ginny G Says:

    Nodding in agreement. Tonight, hilariously, the only one of my near neighbours in the stalls who could understand the dialect was complaining that the dialogue was unfeasibly slowly spoken! Heard someone else dismiss it as “Scottish soap opera”. Another turkey from the National.

  2. Laura Says:

    I entirely disagree with this review. The play had little story but it was about the characters not a dramatic plot. The actors were fantastic and the set amazing. As for the accents I do not understand your problem. I an still at school but found the accent fine as did everyone around me. I overheard one lady complaining about it but I just thought she was being one of those people who can’t bare anything not spoken by a southerner ( and yes I am from the south). At the beginning some jokes relied on confusing he audience with the accent but anyone with half a brain soon worked out what a wain was. People don’t complain about shakespearian language. It’s just like watching any Scottish/American/south African etc play/film. It’s set there so the language is as important to the setting as anything else

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I am hoping your Englishness helped you, Laura, but I’m American and even though I do perhaps only have a quarter of a brain, I just couldn’t keep up with this play.

  3. Kevin Quinn Says:

    I agree with Laura. I’m from Co. Tyrone but that’s no advantage. With a good Scottish accent you just have to listen. Okay, the play did have the odd gap but I liked the gag about the granny dug out of the quarry and who could resist the images of the sweets saved from the cinema or the tin of baked beans brought over as a treat. The daughter enlivened every scene she was in and the mother’s last speeech was hugely moving as she compared herself as a young woman to her daughter now. It was a timeless speech about love and marriage. In my mind I was comparing it with the NT’s recent and excellent production “After the Dance” and it stood the test. We, the sons and daughters of the poor, have travelled a long way to see our parents’ lives on stage at the National. A truly national theatre.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      A good response but I’m afraid I just couldn’t keep up and missed some important plot points because of it. I think better theater could be done about us poor folks, though my poor folks are not of course your poor folks; we’d have to set it in a trailer park. (Jerusalem handled it well, I think.)

  4. C Says:

    I am sorry if you couldn’t understand some of the dialogue. However what I would say is that you should wait until the play opens before reviewing it, rather than judging it on its second preview. Throughout the previews we’ve done alot of work trying to make the dialect easier to understand and therefore make the play more accessible to a wider audience. I hope that if you had seen the play tonight you would have had a more enjoyable experience and I ask that in future you do not view the previews of a play as the finished product.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Tough luck, pal, I paid my money, rather a lot of it, and I write my review. If you want me to wait then you can provide me free tickets for opening night. If you want to present something that you think isn’t worth seeing, then DON’T charge for it. I consider it just as valid to document what happened during a preview is during any other time during the run. Consider it part of YOUR learning process about what worked and what didn’t.

      Finally: are you so terrified about what one little blogger is going to do to your audiences that you feel the need to silence me? If you think the final result is so great, pony up for a ticket for me and I’ll write a review based on the finished product. Unfortunately, if you can’t tell by the name of my blog, that is not something I can afford to do.

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  6. Bill Guest Says:

    Sorry to hear that anyone going to see a play set in a Glasgow tenement during the depression might not realise that the actors would probably be speaking with (horror!) a local accent. Perhaps the NT should be asked to show it again using BBC English?

    As a southern Englishman I had virtually no problem with the accent (although being married to a Scot probably helps here), and I thought the play was wonderful.

  7. Claire Says:

    Wonderful play about day to day life in that era. There’s no Hollywood plot and I think you missed the point by being displeased about the lack of dramatic tension and evolution of the characters – but as you say you were unable to follow a large portion of the dialogue.

    The humour is timeless and most of the audience seemed to get the jokes – so C’s comment seems accurate in that respect.

    You’re entitled to your opinions of course but I’d hate anyone to be put off by thinking that they may not understand the local accent. It takes a bit of concentration to get in the swing of it for a few minutes but for most people it’s no worse than that.

    I fear that this review and others of its kind may eventually lead to a dumbing down of the National so that it is more “accessible” to all. I think it is fantastic that the National is able to produce such authentic, good quality productions to packed audiences at affordable prices – with heavily discounted concessions for children and adults up to 26 years old.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I’m afraid my American companion and I both struggled with the dialact and slang through most of the first act, and that it seriously impacted both of our enjoyment of the play. Making a play understandable isn’t dumbing it down anymore than performing the Misanthrope in English is dumbing it down. You’ll note I didn’t advocate the accent be eliminated or even reduced; I merely said I could not follow it. I cannot recommend this play for Americans.

      As for plot, good playwrights are not beholden to Hollywood but to their own tradition of amazing storytelling. I would think of, say, Ibsen, or, more recently, Mike Bartlett, as outstanding in this craft, with a fine ability to move plot and create characters that evolve. I think this play failed on this front. However, it is a very timely play from a political standpoint.

      Thank you for a balanced reply, it’s often too easy for people to slip into namecalling when they hold a different point of view.

  8. mark Says:

    I did walk out at half time, and having read this review am so pleased I didnt stay.

    If I had wanted to watch a social documentary about Glasgow in the 1930s I would have turned on the TV or read a book by Jimmy Boyle.

    The play patronized the people it was sought to portray. This wasnt helped by the audience [white, english, middle class: like me] misguidedly laughing at the wrong jokes; at rather then with, in error.

    This was not a PLAY, and I was astonished it had been chosen by the National: it lacked any dramatic content and no new message. It talked down to the audience on the question of womens issues and poverty. People can say that it doesnt matter there is no drama and complain about ‘dumbing down’ the National. it is weak minded people whose consciences are assuaged by such mediocre tat who are the ones dumbing down the theatre. I agree with the cowgirl that there are better ways of portraying the poor.

    Dont bother to go and see it. A wasted evening. What a shame.

    i should say as a post script that the dialect issue is an unnecessary diversion.

  9. jooafag Says:

    Found your review quite helpful , but I think i’ll be able to understand it easier as I’m from Glasgow so the dialect isn’t as much a problem for me.You should try reading it , its even harder to understand, I have to read it for my higher Drama.
    Perhaps the reason you couldn’t understand the accent is because Americans generally talk very slow and arent used to someone talking as fast unlike the British who talk more faster.
    I understand Scottish slang is like a foreign language to Americans but , as when I was in Florida a few years back , my Mum had been talking to an American woman for around a week , when she asked my Dad if English was my Mums first language.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      That’s funny, actually I am told that Americans speak much more quickly than English people. I am in particular constantly being told to slow down. So perhaps you’ve got us confused with some other folks, or maybe you’ve confused “Southerners” as representing all “Americans?” Much like the woman in Florida who asked the stupid question about your mom … of course there are people in America who don’t know Hawaii is part of it. *sigh*

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