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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Like Coal Dust and Pigment, "The Pitmen Painters" Leaves Its Mark -- A Review

Until last week, if you asked me to describe a scene from October 29, 1934, it would not be what I envision now. Until last week, I would have first imagined the music of America's great Jazz Age, or classic cars, or women's fashions, or an entry in my mother's diary. (She was a teenager, hoping her parents would let her have a Halloween party.) But last week I sat in the audience at A.C.T. A Contemporary Theatre, in Seattle, and watched a play called The Pitmen Painters. I will never imagine 1934 in the same way again.

Original artwork by the pitmen painters known as The Ashington Group.
Photo: Woodhorn Museum                   
On the 29th of October in that year, a group of coal miners waited in a YMCA hall in Ashington, Northumberland, in northeastern England, dressed in their best clothes. They had gathered for a class in art appreciation. It had been arranged through the Workers' Education Associationthe WEA—an organization created by their labor union in 1903. The teacher, Robert Lyon, was late. But his arrival would change the lives of these men forever, and maybe society as well, at least to some degree.

Thus began a true story, Lee Hall's stage adaptation of a non-fiction book by William Feaver entitled "Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984." It is being staged in the Allen Theatre at A.C.T. April 20—May 20. This is theatre-in-the-round, and my seat, like all the seats, allowed a clear view of the platform below that served as a stage. Two different elevated screens on opposite sides of the room showed black and white images of Ashington, the center of coal mining in England in the 1930s while music from that era created the ambiance.

Art Class
Photo: Chris Bennion                   

Lyon (Frank Lawler) begins his lesson with a slide presentation of the classic, religious-themed works of master painters, but the men cannot relate. They had come there to learn how to appreciate art, but as intelligent, observant, working-class realists, these paintings hold no relevance to their own lives. So they challenged Lyon.

The program quotes the real Lyon as having said, "It was perfectly clear that these men had decided views on what they did not want to the class to be. They did not want to be told what was the correct thing to look for in a work of Art but to see for themselves why this should be correct; in other words, they wanted a way, if possible, of seeing it for themselves."

Frank Lawler and Jason Marr in The Pitmen Painters.
Photo: Chris Bennion                   
Lawler portrays Lyon with warmth, compassion, and a finely tuned balance, showing him to be a man from a privileged background, but one who cares about others without condescension. Lyon does not set himself above these working-class men. He sees them as worthy individuals with valid opinions and views, as deserving of respect as anyone in higher society. He decides that the best way was for the men to learn about art is to create their own, to paint their own interpretations of their world and their experiences. So they do exactly that. Without any formal training, they produce vivid, honest, organic works of art, images not usually seen in galleries: the cramped and miserable conditions in the coal mines, the muscled men working in the dark and heat, street scenes, home scenes, their dogs, their gatherings.

Jason Marr in the foreground. Charles Leggett, R. Hamilton Wright, and Frank Lawler in the background.
Photo: Chris Bennion                   
These paintings begin to attract the attention of critics, including a wealthy patron of the arts named Helen Sutherland (beautifully and sensitively played by Morgan Rowe) who takes a particular interest in Oliver Kilbourn (Jason Marr) Her offer to support his artistic endeavors—thereby providing an escape from poverty and the drudgery of the mines—provides the main point of conflict in the play and makes interesting observations about society in general and the class system that still existed in England at the time.

Playing the role of Oliver is Marr's debut at A.C.T. and will no doubt be looked back upon as a milestone in his already notable career. So perfectly cast (as were all the actors) he has the face and aura of a romantic, no matter how humble his circumstances in the role. His characterization of Oliver makes us love and care about the kind, loyal, hardworking and responsible young man who went to work in the mines as a young boy and has finally had the chance to express what lies in the depths of his beautiful soul.  

Extraordinarily talented Joseph P. McCarthy plays the role of Jimmy Floyd, another miner-turned-artist, whose childhood ended at age 10 when he took his first terrifying ride down into the mines. I cannot forget the haunting way he describes this experience during the play. The audience barely breathed. Yet the character of Floyd brings plenty of humor to the play as well, adding a welcome lightness.

Charles Leggett, as George Brown, does a fine job of showing how his character changes once he begins to paint. He was the bossy (but often funny) member of the group, a staunch union man who follows rules to the letter and tolerates no nonsense. But we see him soften, thanks to the quality of Leggett's acting.

R. Hamilton Wright
Photo: Chris Bennion
The only non-miner among the artists was Harry Wilson, a military veteran who took up dentistry and holds strong Marxist views, played by R. Hamilton Wright, with finesse. The role carries undercurrents of personality, politics, and even perhaps some guilt over not being down in the mines. As Wilson explores art, he also explores his relationships with the other men and his relationship to society. Wright expertly negotiated these subtleties.

Daniel Brockley excelled in the role of Young Lad/Ben Nicholson, an unemployed and restless fellow who begs to sit in on the class, even though he isn't entirely qualified in Brown's critical opinion, at least not at first. But the WEA's policy was that "An enquiring mind is sufficient qualification." Nicholson becomes a tragic figure in the end, but on the way, adds depth and a different perspective to the story.   

Fresh as a breeze and surprisingly modern, the character of Susan Parks—a liberated young woman who works as an artists' model—comes to life through the talents of Christine Marie Brown. She cannot understand why the miner artists should be taken aback by the idea of using a nude model (although the comical Floyd thinks it's a great idea), and she does drop her drapery a little for a brief flash of partial nudity before the scene ends and the lights go out, to the disappointment of many, I'm sure.

"The Deluge" Artwork by Oliver Kilbourn of the Ashington Group
Photo: Oliver Kilbourn

The stage for The Pitmen Painters is simple. A few wooden chairs and a table, that keep being rearranged, make up the set, which seems to represent the plain and drab environment of life in this coal mining town. Even the authentic costumes had little color. But in such a setting, the replicas of actual paintings done by members of The Ashington Group glow ever more vividly when shown on the stage and projected on the two screens above, just as the discovery of art added color to the lives of these men.

Ponder the questions of what art means in society and what access to art means in the lives of individuals—by seeing The Pitmen Painters at A.C.T. soon. Under the fine direction of the theater's Artistic Director Kurt Beattie, it will transport you to a view of the 1930s quite different from your American perspective. My only recommendation is that you READ YOUR PROGRAM before the action begins. Beattie's letter and some accompanying articles will greatly enhance your appreciation of the story by giving you the needed historical background. This is one area in which I felt the stage adaptation fell short. It could have been confusing and vague to those who didn't see it in the context of world affairs. And the Second World War, a profound event in these people's lives, did not receive the attention I felt it warranted. Other than that, I found it gratifying and rich. Don't miss it. Here's a link to the box office.

As I read on in my mother's diary from 1934, I see that she was allowed to have her Halloween party. And as she did so, Hitler's power reached new heights. And according to Beattie's letter in the program, in that same year 834 English miners died in mining accidents and 30,000 more suffered injuries. In the midst of it all, far from my mother's childhood home on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, the men who called themselves "The Ashington Group" were on their way to becoming world renowned artists. Go discover the reason why.

Original artwork by the pitmen painters known as The Ashington Group.
Photo: Woodhorn Museum                   

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