Reviews: Men Should Weep & Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off

Men Should Weep Citizens Theatre, Glasgow until October 8, then touring until November 26

Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until October 15, then at Dundee Rep, October 19 to November 5

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

There has been some considerable debate in recent years (nay, decades) about what does and does not constitute the Scottish theatrical canon. There should be little argument, however, about the pride of place which has been earned by these fine plays by two of our most important female dramatists.  

   Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep (from 1947) – a family drama of grinding poverty in inter-war Glasgow – has the distinction of having been produced in quick succession by the National Theatre in London (where it closed in January of this year) and, now, the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS). The play is not without its weaknesses; chief among them being nostalgia (which, as Lochhead writes, piquantly, in Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, is Scotland’s “national pastime”) and a tendency to mix near caricature with the melodrama (think Aeschylus meets The Broons).

   However, although it is firmly a drama of its own time, the play has an over-arching sense of humanity and tragedy which also makes it resonantly pertinent to ours. Who can deny, in these days of TV documentary The Scheme, mass unemployment and a Tory government minister talking of a “feral underclass”, the continued relevance of the Morrison family, poverty-stricken in an early-20th century Glasgow slum?

   That’s a point made, simply and subtly by director Graham McLaren and designer Colin Richmond, who open up the Morrisons’ cramped, two-room flat from inside a contemporary metal container, topped with barbed wire and a bleakly bored adolescent. The production which unfolds within is close to perfect in its combination of unerring, and entirely appropriate, naturalism with the powerfully engaged (and engaging) performances of a universally brilliant cast (Lorraine McIntosh and Michael Nardone are outstanding as the central characters, Maggie and John Morrison; Charlene Boyd shines as their bored, sexually restive daughter-in-law, Isa).

   Packing a powerful political punch (in the realm of gender as much as in social class), McLaren’s production is the unqualified main stage success that the NTS has been lacking for some time.

   There are, by contrast, some qualifications to the success of Tony Cownie’s production of Liz Lochhead’s classic 1987 play Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, which he directs for the Lyceum and Dundee Rep. For a start, there’s Neil Murray’s set, a frustrating, modern melange of the witty (a statue of John Knox with a traffic cone on his head; a huge crucifix poking out from behind a metal skip) and the distracting (a nastily paint-spattered wall).

   Cownie is best known for his confident comic productions (such as John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti for the NTS), so one wonders why he didn’t go for a bigger, bolder and more musical interpretation of La Corbie (The Crow), Lochhead’s wonderfully scabrous narrator, than Ann Louise Ross gives here. That said, the presentation sparkles on numerous fronts, not least in the gusto of Liam Brennan’s playing of Knox (a self-righteous, misogynistic Orangeman with a sash which looks like it’s been fashioned from a road worker’s high-visibility jacket).

   The highest praise should be reserved, however, for Shauna Macdonald, whose Mary stands out amidst a strong cast. As she walks towards her death, her powerful and moving dignity proves that Lochhead’s Mary Stuart has quite the same stature as Schiller’s.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 25, 2011

© Mark Brown

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