Sharon Small On ... Bringing Scots to the National
Set in the East End of Glasgow in the 1930s, Sharon Small as Maggie Morrison battles to hold her extended family together in their damp, squalid tenement house.
Small is well known for her television roles, having played Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers in the BBC's The Inspector Lynley Mysteries for five series.
She returns to the stage at the National twelve years after her last apperance in London Cuckolds. Having grown up in Glasgow before moving to the East Neuk of Fife with her family, aged ten, I spoke to Small about performing a piece in the NT Lyttelton in her native Scots.
Men Should Weep is about a slice of life that happens in 1937 and it’s predominantly about a family called the Morrison family. I am the matriarch of that family, I’ve got seven children, and a husband who has intermittently got casual work over the last ten years because work’s really hard to find.
I’m the one who’s bringing in the most money, and at that time men didn’t really do housework, the didn’t help around the house. John is to a degree more sensitive, that’s my words, than a lot of men, as is also shown through the set. Have you seen the show yet?
The way that Bunny Christie has designed the set, it’s a slice of the tenement block. At various times, things are going on above, below and to the sides. You get little snapshots of the different life of the pregnant woman who you get to know throughout the piece, as she pops in to see Maggie a lot. She has a violent husband, and in those times, women had no voice, had absolutely no recourse, they had to stay in those marriages, which could be very violent.
The play is about our struggle, with no money, and the poverty. Mixed with the community which is very rowdy, and funny and witty, its poetic - the language is poetic. People really pick up on the sarcasm with each other; they throw it back and forth, which is very typical of Celtic humour in a way. It’s predominantly quite Scottish, only because that’s what I know. It’s a sport; to pick on people, or to laugh at them, or to do word play. I’m sure it’s the same in every culture really, but in this instance it is for the Scots, and quite frenetic old Scots language.
It’s great that the National are doing the play because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a really strong Scottish show down in London. The language isn’t easy to tune into, in the first ten minutes some haven’t been comfortable, but some enjoy the poetry and the sound and the meaning. You can tell what’s going on, of course!
We've worked to make it a bit more accessible. We changed things like “hae” to “have” and “gie” to “give” but we kept things like “wallydug” and lots of those really rich Scottish things that you couldn’t replace.
Quite often in a lot of Greek tragedies, the women drive it, but actually, she has to react to the blows that come her way; to try to keep her family together. It is a great role, but the emphasis is more on what happens to her, rather than the decisions she makes, she’s not in control of what happens to her. Maggie has a coping, reactive role, very much keeping the love, warmth and the fight surviving.
I've really enjoyed working with Josie Rourke as a director. I just think that Josie is an incredible person to work with, so her direction and insight were really important, and really supportive, getting the right moments to play. I just think that she had a fantastic natural insight into the interaction and dynamics between the women, and supportive of the strength of these women at the time.
Its great to be back at the National. It’s nice to come back and do something in your own accent as well. I’ll tell you something they do at the National, which was just fantastic: on opening night, on the press night when you get the beginners’ call, all the actors in the building all bang on the dressing room window as a salute, to say good luck. It’s thrilling. It’s really good fun, it sends you out with a bit of a buzz.
Its just a real privilege to work in such a great theatre and we’re playing to really good audiences and really full houses, and that’s a luxury today. This is about poverty, and we are in really tough times. It's a fantastic time to be able to play to full audiences.
I spent years doing The Inspector Lynley Mysteries in a sort of London accent, so to be able to celebrate the muscularity of the Scottish accent is great. You kind of forget how many fantastic things are in the Scots’ vocabulary and how much you don’t use it any more. To be able to use it and to remember expressions you'd forgotten, or that kind of humour. It's lovely to revisit all of that with an almost all Scottish cast.
Men Should Weep opened in the NT Lyttelton Theatre on 26 October 2010 (previews from 18 October) where it continues in rep until 9 January 2010.