23 February, 2009Issue 8.5EuropeThe ArtsTheatre

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Mining the Artistic Depths

Jennifer O’Sullivan

pitmenLee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters
The National Theatre, London
Directed by Max Roberts
Running until 14 April 2009

In Them & [Uz] (1985), Tony Harrison famously recalls reading Keats aloud in a classroom, in a thick Leeds accent: Mi ‘art aches. “Mine’s broken, you barbarian,” his teacher retorts, adding, “Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death.” It is an exchange that could serve as an epigraph to Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters.

Based on William Feaver’s book, the Olivier-nominated play is a funny, passionate and humane exploration of the troubled British relationship between art and class. It follows the lives of the Ashington Group, the eponymous “Pitmen Painters”, a collection of miners who, in the 1930s, formed an evening class in art appreciation run by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA).

The miners began to paint scenes from their lives, eventually becoming well known in the art world for their striking, expressionist images. The fact that the play avoids slipping into awful hackneyed clichés about the innate righteousness of the working class, or presenting them as crude regional stereotypes, is a testament to Hall’s script and to the actors’ talent. The production is timely, emerging at a moment of heightened public debate about the use of public funds to secure “art for the nation” amidst the recession. The Pitmen Painters asks its audience whether they want to live in a society where art is the inheritance of the great mass of mankind or of the privileged few.

Hall has a brilliant ear for dialogue and for tiny, excruciating moments that expose the class divide. When the Ashington Group embark on a train to London, the working-class men are put in Coach D, while the art teacher, Robert Lyon, is bumped up to first class. Nobody comments on the discrepancy. The upper-class artist Ben Nicholson—played in a lisping, leering and show-stealing turn by Brian Lonsdale—automatically asks miner Oliver Kilbourn if he is “there to do some work on the house”, upon hearing his Newcastle accent. The play abounds with one-line putdowns, as when the Duchess of Sutherland tartly refuses to purchase a painting: “You should try Lady Ridley, she’s got more money than sense, and she’s always ten years behind the times.”

Much of the play consists of the Ashington Group standing around discussing art; fortunately, most of the wit arises here too. The verbal sparring between the officious WEA organiser (Deka Walsmley) and his fellow miner-artists is particularly joyful. He serves as a foil to the Somme-surviving communist dental technician and occasional painter (Michael Hodgson), who gets the best lines, quoting Marx and Engels with deadpan equanimity.

More serious is the relationship between Oliver Kilbourn and Robert Lyon. Kilbourn is the miner turned painter whose development forms the play’s emotional core. Lyon is the teacher originally assigned to the miners, who nudges them into developing their latent artistic talent, and who shifts from pedagogue to parasite when their talent eclipses his own. Ian Kelly plays Lyon brilliantly with a mixture of gentle solicitude and self-absorbed ambition, leaving the audience to shift rapidly between amusement, pity, revulsion and affection.

Kilbourn and Lyon’s relationship is subtle, and mutual jealousy plays a small but crucial part. Lyon craves Kilbourn’s innate talent and the supportive fraternity of the Ashington Group, Kilbourn desires Lyon’s social agency and unquestioned privilege. This becomes explicit in an electrifying scene where Lyon sketches Kilbourn, first dressing him in the caricature of a pitman’s uniform, ignoring Kilbourn’s complaints that the clothes are unrealistic. When Lyon finishes, Kilbourn subjects his work to a lengthy and devastating critique. Gradually, Lyon’s sketch emerges as a metaphor for the dominant class’ inability to portray the dominated without interposing its own unconscious assumptions over the actual reality.

The Pitmen Painters is a political play. It blindsides the audience with rapid dialogue about weighty artistic questions—”What is art?” and “Is abstract art any good?”; “What’s the point of art during wartime?” and “Do artists emerge from nature or nurture?”—but it returns, repeatedly, to the simple idea that art is a process, preferably communal, and not a product or a commodity. Art, in this play, is a universal birthright.

It is an admirable message, one that Lee Hall spells out in large letters in his essay accompanying the programme. It is only slightly marred by the logo reading “sponsored by Accenture” splashed across all the National’s promotional material. Once you get past this, and past the gross irony of watching a play about how art is not the preserve of the privileged in a theatre filled with what can only be described as the elite, it might even be inspiring.

The final scene in particular is heartbreaking. The play concludes in 1946, on the dawn of nationalisation. The characters cluster around a socialist banner, singing the Miners’ Hymn and toasting to the future, to the NHS, the newly nationalised coal board. In the background, unsubtle subtitles blast onto screens previously used for close-ups of paintings. The subtitles outline the New Labour abandonment of Clause IV, the shift away from nationalisation and statistics about the long, slow death of mining communities. It is a bittersweet ending that sounds, perhaps, mawkish and sentimental, but it works genuinely well onstage.

There is something very piquant and very sad about watching, in 2009, a play that unabashedly celebrates the Welfare State and its founding principles. One leaves with the disquieting sense that Hall’s play is too late, that it is there to act as an elegy, rather than as a mission statement: a genuinely moving elegy, a well-written and acted one, but a death-knell nonetheless.

One is reminded of the schoolboy waving a sparkler on the eve of Margaret Thatcher’s election at the end of Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club (2001), shouting: “Look, it’s the last spark of socialist England.” This was perhaps due to the bitter and ironic experience of watching The Pitmen Painters in the glitzy confines of the National Theatre, where the crowds had a depressing tendency to discuss their stock portfolios in the interval. The play, perhaps, worked better when touring smaller, provincial theatres, where it could actually make good on its oft-repeated claim about how art should be experienced by everyone.

Jennifer O’Sullivan is reading for a degree in English at Wadham College, Oxford.