Written by Lee Hall and performed at the Duchess Theatre, London, on 25th February 2012.
If I’d known exactly what this play was about I doubt I would have gone to see it so I’m really glad that I hadn’t heard anything about it.
It’s based on true events. The Pitmen Painters were a group of miners from Ashington in the north of England. Having left school at 11, and being acutely aware of their lack of ‘academic’ education, they meet once a week to learn about new subjects. They are sent an art appreciation lecturer, who rapidly realises that showing slides of the Masters is an inappropriate way for them to learn about art. Instead, he encourages them to create their own paintings, which they can then discuss.
These discussions expand into questions about where the ‘meaning’ of art lies and challenge the widely held view that this is the domain of the elite, those whose educational background equips them with the skills necessary to discuss high culture. Consequently, a dash of socialism/Marxism is thrown into the mix.
From my limited understanding of Marxism, I believe a key element to be alienation. The workers are cut off from the products of their labour, thus their creativity is not satisfied. The pitmen work long hours in dangerous and unpleasant conditions. Their WEA classes allow them the freedom to explore the suppressed creative aspect of their personality and to challenge the view that art and literature are only for the elite.
I found this a surprisingly moving play which, like life, has a mix of comedy and tragedy. It is thought-provoking and demands that we confront and question our assumptions about art, its ‘meaning’ and purpose, and who holds the power over it. Is it something that only the elite can access or can it be experienced by all, regardless of social class.
The cast is stong, the characters immensely likeable. They move from humour to sadness with apparent ease. The simple set provides an effective platform for considering complex issues and the reproduction of the original paintings provides an interesting insight into this extraordinary group of people.
This was an afternoon extremely well spent.