Saturday, May 24, 2008
The Pitmen Painters At The National
It is refreshing to encounter a play that deals in ideas and yet features characters that do not just feel like mouthpieces for particular points of view. Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters at the National succeeds in this regard. It deals in Big Themes and yet it manages to also be a play about people. The play charts of the history of the Ashington Group, a group of miners who took up painting and made a stir in the art world.
Having signed up for an art appreciation class, their assigned tutor Robert Lyon, having made little headway showing them slides of Renaissance masterpieces (they can’t be doing with all these cherubs and want to look at ‘proper’ paintings), decides he can better teach them about art by encouraging them to create it themselves.
Though reluctant, with Lyon’s encouragement they begin to enjoy the process and it becomes clear that a number of the men (reduced by Hall from around thirty to just five for the purposes of the play) have an aptitude for art. Their work is noticed by a local shipping heiress and art collector and soon they are staging exhibitions and being invited down to London to visit the Tate. But what drives them to keep painting, to keep producing work, is not their unexpected success, or their increasing recognition by the art world, but their sheer love of art, of the process of creation. A window has been opened for them. They are able to document their lives in a way they hadn't thought possible, to record the 'little, tiny moments of being alive,' to create something capable of lasting.
Hall just about steers these characters away from stereotype territory: there is the staunch Marxist one, the everything-by-the-book one, the dim but goodhearted one and the younger one, frustrated by his inability to land a steady job. But though these men can be neatly summed up as such, some warm playing from the actors and some sharp writing gives them greater life than that might suggest.
It’s Hall’s portrait of Oliver Kilbourn (played by Christopher Connel), that is the most affecting. The most talented of the group, he has been a pitman all his life and considers himself a good one. When he is offered a stipend to work full time as a painter, he is torn between the desire to do something he has come to love and the fear of leaving behind all he has known. Eventually the shift in identity that this would require proves too much for him.
Hall takes particular pains to drive home how open these men were to the world of art, how they came to embrace it. On a visit to an exhibition of Chinese art, where Lyon sees mere folk art and is quick to dismiss it as such, the men saw something profound in its simplicity, something not totally unrelated from their own lives. I could have done with learning something more about Lyon and his relationship with the men. As it is we get one powerful scene between Lyon and Kilbourn (which is – very coolly – conducted while Ian Kelly, as Lyon, sketches the other man, the results in full view of the audience) that reveals something of the strange mix of pride and envy he feels towards this group of men who will be remembered longer than he will ever be.
The production loses a little of its impetus in the second half, but then these are real lives with no neat conclusions. Since there is no easy ending point to the story, Hall opts to finish with the nationalization of the mines and the men dreaming of the socialist paradise to come (and having a bit of sing as they do so). The irony is obvious without Hall us being reminded of the pit closures on the overhead screens. A woman next to me tutted to her friend as she got up, said she wasn’t keen on being lectured to. But I thought this was a rather harsh assessment, I didn’t feel lectured, but enthused and excited, it left me thinking, as was intended, about what art means to me and the role of artists in society. It’s also very funny, especially in the first half, with much of this humour derived from accent-based confusion (the accent in Ashington being a particularly thick variant on Geordie known as Pitmatic).
There’s an exhibition of the Ashington Group’s work up in the main theatre and it adds much to the experience to be able to look at the paintings you’ve just seen being discussed, including the sketch of Kilbourn and the early linocuts. As I was pottering around, looking at the pictures, Jeremy Irons swept past me with a pair of large glossy dogs on leads, which has little bearing on the play or the exhibition, but was an odd enough sight to merit a mention.