The Pitmen Painters, Pericles

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE PITMEN PAINTERS at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and PERICLES at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 28.7.11
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The Pitmen Painters 4 stars ****
Pericles 4 stars ****

EVER SINCE he wrote the script for the global stage and film hit Billy Elliott, a dozen years ago, the Newcastle-born playwright Lee Hall has been recognised as one of the leading voices in 21st century English drama, and a passionate advocate for the often unheard voices of ordinary working people. He has experimented with hard-edged surrealism in plays like Cooking With Elvis, and recently hit the headlines in a fierce dispute with Northern Opera over a glancing reference to homosexuality in an opera for performance by schoolchildren.

If you want a glimpse of the straightforward, passionate heartland of Hall’s work as a writer, though, then you can do no better than to head for the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, which plays host this week to the only Scottish dates in the current tour of his 2007 play The Pitmen Painters, co-produced by the National Theatre in London, and Live Theatre of Newcastle. Inspired by a book by art critic William Feaver, The Pitmen Painters tells the astonishing story of the Ashington Group, a collective of more than 30 miners from Ashington in Northumberland who in the 1930’s attended a Workers’ Educational Association art appreciation class in their village hall, and soon began to paint themselves, creating a remarkable body of work that, for a while, became the toast of the British arts establishment.

For the purposes of his drama, Hall reduces the number of miners involved to five, and spins a powerful episodic drama – in short, Brecht-style scenes introduced by projected slides giving date and location – around the story of their interaction with the art world, first in the shape of their tutor, Robert Lyon, and later of the wealthy art patron Helen Sutherland. From the start, the weekly art class at Ashington becomes a fierce and often sharply comic arena for debate about the purpose and nature of art, about the relationship between the figurative and the abstract (“That’s nowt but a blob, that is…”) and about the economic circumstances that support, shape or destroy creative lives. Hall’s point is that the pitmen, despite their fierce Northumberland accents and lack of formal education, are far from stupid; and more than capable – once the outlines of debate are made to clear to them – of joining in, on their own terms.

The dramatic crux of the drama, though, lies in the tension between the most talented of the painters, Oliver Kilbourn, and the patron Helen Sutherland, who wants him to give up coal-mining and live on her patronage, in order to develop his painting. At the core of this debate, there lie some aching questions about the tension between the individual and the collective, in the development of a creative life; and about the economic base for visual art in particular, in a market always shaped by the preferences of the rich.

In the end, Hall’s play begins to look like something of a tragedy, as the strong collective experience that gave the men’s work its mighty energy also places limits on their creative development; and as they express their high hopes for the nationalisation of the mines in 1946, mocked by the later history of strife, closure and economic decline which we all know. Hall himself says that the very existence of a story like Billy Elliott – which shows a former mining community still alienated from the idea of a career in the arts, fifty years on – demonstrates the failure of those hopes.

Throughout Max Roberts’s powerful production, though, every member of the play’s eight-strong cast – led by Trevor Fox as Oliver Kilbourn – acts as if the future of the nation still depended on their argument, with an intensity mirrored in Martin Hodgson’s fierce sound design, and in the paintings themselves, projected behind the action. And in the end, we’re left with an unforgettable sense of how old industrial communities were able to create a collective life, and reaffirm the humanity and potential even of the most battered coalface worker; as we try to navigate our way through a world so much richer in material goods and in its sense of individual freedom, and yet so relatively poor in the quality of its shared cultural experience, and in its confidence that the best in life can and should be available to us all.

The Bard In The Botanics season, meanwhile, is never shy of bringing the most rare and demanding of Shakespeare’s plays to its wide-ranging Glasgow audience; and if the obscure late romance Pericles is not exactly the bard’s finest work – it is thought that he only wrote about half of it – it still has a surreal, fantastical and disturbing quality that recalls some of the wilder shores of 20th century symbolism, and offers rich food for thought.

Graham Barr’s fine and fascinating short version, staged with a few ship’s-chandler-style props and costumes inside the beautiful Kibble Palace, lasts for just 95 minutes; and it rightly avoids dwelling for too long on the detail of any one episode in this bizarre story, which involves a young prince fleeing across the Mediterranean to avoid the wrath of an incestuous father whose crimes he has discovered, finding himself shipwrecked on the shore of a city-state with a beautiful young princess, marrying her, and burying her at sea after she apparently dies giving birth to their little daughter Marina.

The story of how the three are evdentually reunited is a strange one indeed, full of weird coincidences and unsettling sexual neuroses. Yet Barr’s four-strong cast – superbly led by Beth Marshall as storyteller and mother-figure – handle it with a lightness and wisdom that spins real magic out of this strange tale; and a sense that in the dreamlike moment when life, death and desire meet, there are almost certainly, as the man himself said, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

The Pitmen Painters at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and Pericles at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, both until Saturday, 30 July.

ENDS ENDS

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