Tuesday, 14 December 2010


     Ena Lamont Stewart was the daughter of a Scottish minister whose church was in the Glasgow slums. Her upbringing caused her to develop a profound interest in and compassion for the poor, particularly the light of poor women. Married to an actor, she also became interested in theater. Because she was a woman, she was never fully accepted into the circle of male playwrights, directors and producers. Nonetheless, MEN SHOULD WEEP, written in 1937, was recently voted one of the hundred best British plays. It has an enormous cast which makes it very difficult to produce. Unlike all but a few plays, the cast is female heavy. The National has mounted an extremely effective revival of MEN SHOULD WEEP under the sensitive direction of Josie Rourke, artistic director of the Bush Theatre, one of London's most important centers of new writing for the stage.
     I was particularly interested in seeing this play. My grandmother grew up one of thirteen children in the Glasgow slums. She was a fierce woman, to put it mildly. She got out at the turn of the twentieth century and, with my grandfather, lived a version of the American dream though their social world was the small Scots enclave in Northern New Jersey. All the Scots' colorful language and tendency toward emotional overstatement was passed on to their children.
     MEN SHOULD WEEP takes place forty years after my grandparents left for America. It is the depression and the Morrison family live in an overcrowded Glasgow tenement. In their small apartment are John and Maggie, John's mother and their five children ranging from six to early twenties. John seldom has work, though he doesn't try very hard to get it. Their family support is depedent on what the grown children bring in plus John's mother's small pension and the genersosity of Maggie's sister. As in Lorraine Hansberry's later A RAISIN IN THE SUN, the tenement environment is a major destructive force on the family and the giant, multi-level set gives on a sense of  the depressing dramas being played out all over this building. Another tenement nearby physically collapses. What we witness in the Morrison apartment is a collapse of morale.
     I thought of Sean O'Casey's plays about the Dublin slums as I watched MEN SHOULD WEEP. As in O'Casey's work, the men are weak and the women are survivors. The men try to enforce a rigid moral code on the women, but the women know that conventional morality is irrelevant in their world. One daughter has managed to escape by moving in with her boss. She has a good home and nice clothes and wants to help her parents financially, but the father won't take "a whore's earnings." The mother will if it means a better home. There is a gossipy but supportive community of women who see men as the common enemy. Maggie and John love each other, but it takes a crisis in the marriage to get John into a steady job. He is a master at articulating his failure but then passing the blame on to something or someone else.
     At first the play seemed like unrelieved gloom. The youngest son has tuberculosis, the older daughter hates her parents and her home and the older son is a gambler married to a "fancy woman" who despises his weakness. But the play is leavened with humor and it is worth sticking through the relatively glum first half to get to the vibrant second half. At the interval, I wondered what the playwright's politics were -- why had she written this grim picture of slum life? A few minutes into Part Two and one could see that her primary interest was gender politics -- how strong women can survive despite weak men. For some, the Scottish accents will be a problem -- I was raised on them and loved hearing all the old Scots aphorisms and insults that I have known since childhood. I could hear my grandparents and my mother in the women's banter.
     The production is nearly flawless. It has been running for a while and there were a few moments when an actress would overplay her role and mug a bit. However, like O'Casey's work, MEN SHOULD WEEP veers from comedy to melodrama and Rourke and her cast tried to keep the acting totally honest. The cast drew cheers from the audience at the end which they richly deserved.
     Other people wrote better, more nuanced, versions of this sort of play -- Sean O'Casey, Lorraine Hansberry and the master, Clifford Odets. But MEN SHOULD WEEP deserves this fine production and only a well heeled, subsidized theatre like the National could afford to revive it.

Sunday, 5 December 2010


     I'm not a great G&S fan. To my ears, Sullivan's music is not anywhere near as good as that of the great composers of 19th century comic opera, Rossini, Donizetti, Strauss or Offenbach. The ballads sound like Victorian parlor music. And the lyrics, while witty, aren't as clever as the great Amercan lyricists, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart or Stephen Sondheim. On the other hand, I'm always surprised when I go to a G&S performance to find that I enjoy it if it is well sung and directed. I think I have been put off by the folks who are religious about G&S and by amateur performances. G&S musicals They are musical comedy, after all) deserve good singing and comic acting. I once starred  in an amateur G&S production. I know I was awful, but my colleagues weren't much better. At one performance, a fellow actor forgot an entrance leaving me alone on stage for six long minutes trying to improvise in G&S style. All I can say is that it must have been worse for the audience than it was for me.
     The tiny Union Theatre in London which specializes in pocket size revivals of classic musicals, now do an annual all male production of a G&S work. This year it is IOLANTHE and it is delightful. The conceit is that some boys rummage through an attic and decide to put on IOLANTHE with whatever they find. The sixteen talented (with one exception) young men then play both the fairies and the elderly Lords. The fairies are dressed in an odd combination of women's undergarments with shuttlecocks as wings. The Lords are dressed in extremely dusty old drapery. It's all great fun.
     First, the music. The men must be able to perform effectively in falsetto as the fairies, then with strong tenor and bass voices for the Lords. They're all extremely good singers. The choral work is superb, the solo work never less than good. There is only piano accompaniment, but in such a small space, one doesn't miss a orchestra.
     The performances are all totally committed. There is never a sense that the performers are merely camping it up but that they are really playing faries and silly old  men. Yes, this is all camp, but not the least bit cynical or ironic. There's one oddly weak performance, Gianni Onori as the romantic lead, Strephon. He's handsome, but simply can't act. I never for a moment thought he even understood what he was saying. Surely the director, Sasha  Regan, noticed this. Onori's ineptitude seems to be part of the concept, but I'm not sure it works. He's not funny awful, just oddly detached from the proceedings. 
     This IOLANTHE is the best staged G&S production I have seen. All the musical numbers are superbly choreographed (Mark Smith). The show dances from beginning to end which one does not expect of a G&S production. Sometimes it's disconcertingly "in your face" in this small space. We were in the front row and nearly got trampled a couple of times.  The cast all (Mr. Onori excepted) dance as well as they sing.
     I'm already looking forward the the Union's next G&S.
IOLANTHE at the Union Theatre. December 3, 2010