The Pitmen Painters

'The Pitmen Painters' presented by National Theatre (UK) and Live Theatre Newcastle.

'The Pitmen Painters' presented by National Theatre (UK) and Live Theatre Newcastle.

'The Pitmen Painters' presented by National Theatre (UK) and Live Theatre Newcastle.

'The Pitmen Painters' presented by National Theatre (UK) and Live Theatre Newcastle.

“Men make their own history, but not under conditions of their own making.” It’s hard for me to not like a play where a handful of the punchlines have been scripted by Karl Marx.

And for a reviewer who has spent several hours in recent weeks in the company of Pan Pan and the Performance Corporation – my learned friends tell me that’s “post-drama” – it’s something of a relief to sit in a theatre where actors playing stable, credible roles make tidy speeches that clearly express what the characters mean to say about themselves and the world they live in, and that also advance the narrative, and where there’s a laugh-line every minute or two (Marxist or otherwise) unless the scene is very serious indeed.

But perhaps you can have too much of a good thing. Lee Hall, writer of the affecting and effective Billy Elliot, is author of this acclaimed play about a real-life group of coal-miners and others from the northern-England pit-town of Ashington, men who beginning in 1934 learned to paint under the tutelage of artist-academic Robert Lyon. We view the work of the Ashington Group (in reality dozens of painters, here reduced to five), and the men argue and joke about the nature of their art and how it reflects and refracts their hardscrabble lives. The Pitmen Painters might to be said to take its cue from the scene in Billy Elliot when the boy’s dance teacher invites him to “express yourself” and he replies, puzzled, “Express what?”

The ideas the worker-painters declaim are cleverly delivered and genuinely interesting, and Hall intelligently explores how their art was received by a predominantly left-wing art establishment that was interested in the phenomenon of the Group but was also in the throes of high-modernist abstraction. There’s a nice moment when, visiting the Tate to view a collection of Chinese paintings (projected here on a backscreen), the men trump their middle-class teacher because they more clearly understand that the Chinese artists’ “self-expression” needed to operate within a collective tradition.

Such a Shavian interplay of ideas, however, doesn’t necessarily make great 21st-century drama. Maybe in a more intimate venue than the Gaiety, where the actors didn’t have to shout quite so loud, the play’s elements of realism would feel more, well, real. (This is not, we are assured, mere bourgeois formalism.) Perhaps if the cast of this long-running (in Newcastle and London) production weren’t whirring like a well-oiled machine, words flying fast with hardly a hint of the thought-processes that allegedly made them, The Pitmen Painters wouldn’t feel so phony. But phony it feels.

It must be said this seemed a minority view among the audience, who hung on every word and applauded robustly at the end. I also note, however, the lower enthusiasm on the faces of the few under-30s sitting near me. (I am, admittedly, well outside that bracket myself, in fact older than the playwright.)

I also think it’s worth debating whether, as has been widely assumed, Hall’s art is in the right place, as it were. One of the more depressing aspects of this play has been offstage: the way the author’s discourse about the history of what might be called 'proletarian aesthetics' from the 1930s to the present-day, ideas driven home in the final scene and in Hall’s programme notes, has been uncritically embraced by the Guardian classes. Yes indeed, we are invited to lament, it’s terrible to consider the loss/betrayal of these men’s socialist vision: a vision of ordinary people who produce their own de-commodified art rather than consume the dumbed-down shit (Hall’s word) that mass-culture sells them. Rather than being the vanguard of socialist cultural-comprehension-and-production, as they hoped and believed, these men turned out to be the Last Stand.

Okay, that’s a view, and there’s plenty of 'shit' to sustain it. But let’s look again, quickly, at late-20th-century mass culture and its consequences. In 1934, most of Hall’s pitmen have never seen a naked woman until a life-model walks into their hut, in a scene played for laughs. Their grandsons, by contrast, can (mostly) find a clitoris and know what to do with it; women are accepted in their social company; gay men and ethnic minorities are visible parts of their cultural world. Progress, no? Moreover, while Hall at least hints at that shift, there’s no acknowledgment that in the sphere of production working-class people have arguably been the most dynamic artistic creators of the post-war period in the West, with output of unprecedented breadth and depth, from rock ’n’ roll to break-dancing; and their rich cultural activity has used many de-commodified forms, from graffiti to baton-twirling to file-sharing.

So what, one can legitimately ask, if working-class people have in the meantime largely eschewed bourgeois-defined high-culture, and there is no university in Ashington? What does it tell us, I wonder, that Lee Hall chooses to tell working-class stories about ballet and oil-painting?

Harry Browne is a journalism lecturer in Dublin Institute of Technology.



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  • Review
  • Theatre

The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall, inspired by the book by William Feaver

6 - 10 October, 2009

Produced by National Theatre (UK) and Live Theatre Newcastle
In Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Directed by Max Roberts

Designer: Gary McCann

Lighting Design: Douglas Kuhrt

Sound Design: Martin Hodgson

With: Deka Walmsley, Christopher Connel, David Whitaker, Brian Lonsdale, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly, Lisa McGrillis, Phillippa Wilson