Rameau's Nephew/The Fall Of The House Of Usher/Men Should Weep
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Opened 23-25 September, 1998

Its stationery and programmes declare simply "Citizens Theatre, Gorbals, Glasgow" and, even though that district's notorious tenements have long since been razed, the Citz retains a proud awareness of its social context. Hence its current main house production, Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep, first performed in 1947 by Glasgow Unity Theatre and last seen in a major production by 7:84 some 15 years ago. It is the tale of a family living in just such an area between the wars: a life where the apartment is so overcrowded with family that mother and father sleep in the kitchen; where their consumptive young son is forbidden to return from hospital to such squalid conditions, but no council house is forthcoming and the family have no hope of affording a privately rented house, since father John Morrison is at best occasionally and casually employed, spending most of his time in the public library; where daughter Jenny's only hope of escape is into another kind of degradation, as a kept woman, a "whoor".

Stewart's play, written in strong but ringingly clear dialect, is an ensemble piece with actors playing roles of multiple children and neighbours. Giles Havergal's excellent production follows the heart of the writing through both sardonic humour and tragedy, occasionally breaking out of Kenny Miller's all-purpose tenement set for a major choric section or duologue as Stewart's play thoroughly exposes the hollowness of the canard that "Children are poor men's riches." Bizarrely, though, to judge by their responses on opening night, the youthful section of the audience seemed to see little more than comedy, so unaware of their own social history that they could only relate to the play as a kind of quaint fantasy.

Wildly fantastical but not at all quaint is the production in the theatre's Circle Studio, The Fall Of The House Of Usher, not so much adapted as utterly fabricated by Jon Pope. Deciding, whether rightly or wrongly, that the suspense and unease of Poe's short story cannot be adequately conveyed in a studio theatrical setting, Pope goes for an hour of unremitting grotesquerie and gore. He expands what might be a hint of incest in Poe's story into the reason for both the family's general strangeness and Madeleine [sic] Usher's final illness, as she laments the premature loss of her child by her brother Roderick. A post-apocalyptic design of small but grim pools, a flying rope, bubble-wrapped furniture and shaven heads with staring eyes, and a clutch of performances which at times directly contradict the characters' own accounts of themselves, complete the unedifying spectacle. The only way Pope succeeds in bringing the house down is by designing a false ceiling to collapse at the end.

The Stalls Studio offers a theatrical misconception of its own in the shape of Rameau's Nephew. Some of the works of eighteenth-century philosopher and encyclopaedist Denis Diderot have successfully been translated onto the stage, but not this quasi-Socratic dialogue between "Moi" and "Lui", the nephew of renowned musician and composer Rameau, as they argue the relative merits of moral principles and time-serving, venomous shallowness. Adaptor-director Phoebe von Held casts women in the male roles, gets Candida Benson as Lui up in a ludicrous outfit somewhere between glam and that of an extra in an Adam and the Ants video, and realises the importance of stage listening but fails to rein in Benson's ludicrous, distracting reactions whilst Alexandra Belcourt is being philosophical. An adaptation of Diderot's encyclopaedia might have proved rather more theatrical.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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