IT might be hard to believe today, when so many young people go to university, but there was a time
IT might be hard to believe today, when so many young people go to university, but there was a time when working people clamoured for education — not to move up in the world, but for its own sake. That is at the heart of the by turns hilarious and poignant The Pitmen Painters.
The original Pitmen Painters was an art group formed in the Thirties from a group of sceptical miners who wanted some kind of education. By day they wielded pickaxes, by night it was paintbrushes as they took themselves out of the gruelling, dangerous work in the Ashington coal mines and found solace in each other’s company and art. This engrossing piece is a joint production between Live Theatre, Newcastle and the National Theatre and has had runs at both.
Its message is timeless: man will find beauty or meaning in the hardest of circumstances.
This is a skilfully written piece from Lee Hall, the man who gave us Billy Elliot. It weaves several strands together and manages to make them connect and yet maintain their independence.It’s highly political but also romantic — not in the sense of love, but in the idea of dreams and fulfilment. It also manages to be very funny with some terrific dialogue. A sketch on the artistic merit of a blob is priceless.
As their work develops the miners start speaking the language of art and philosophy but with an earthy attitude which means that while they take it seriously, it doesn’t run their lives. There are plenty of discussions about the nature of art but done with humour and a wry look which suggests it is the paintings which matter, not the chat. Many people strive to be artists and only that — that applied in the Thirties when it was the preserve of the rich and well-educated. The Pitmen Painters showed that you needed to be neither and could — and probably should — carry on working at a real job.
More than anything, though, this is about the hunger for education these men had, just to know about the world. It’s an inspiring piece.