An interview with Max Roberts, Director of The Pitmen Painters

Posted on 10 August 2011

How did The Pitmen Painters come to be?

Lee Hall, the play‘s author, and I have worked together on a number of plays at Live Theatre where I work as Artistic Director in Newcastle upon Tyne, Lee’s hometown.

Lee came across William Feaver‘s book The Pitmen Painters in a second-hand bookshop on Tottenham Court Road; by the time he’d read the first half on his way home in a taxi he was ringing me to say he’d found the idea that would inspire the play. He then wrote some initial scenes that constituted a very rough first draft and I invited some actors to come together with us to read and discuss it, allowing Lee to hear his words for the first time and provide further inspiration to develop the script.

As Lee was slowly creating the play and undertaking an enormous amount of research around the subject and period, we talked to Gary McCann who had worked at Live previously about the design of the production. Casting was also uppermost in our minds as we would have to find actors who could play these 1930s Geordie pitmen. They needed to speak in the distinctive dialect common to Northumberland and Ashington in particular. Anyone who has been there will know it really is a unique and distinctive vernacular; fortunately, many of the actors who had been associated with Live were the obvious choices – actors born and bred in the north-east who readily identified with the cultural context of the play and most importantly understood the humour. From a similar background to Lee (one actor actually attended the same comprehensive school), they also related strongly to the social and political mores Lee wished to explore.

The play duly opened at Live in 2007 followed by a revival and transfer to the National Theatre, where it enjoyed three extended runs at both the Cottesloe and the Lyttelton theatres with a short national tour in between. In 2009, it transferred to Broadway where it played the Manhattan Theatre Club to huge popular and critical acclaim. Now thanks to Bill Kenwright an even wider audience can participate in this play‘s remarkable journey.

What is The Pitmen Painters about?

Lee grew up in the 1970s, acutely aware that he was often in a minority regarding his love of the arts. Traditionally, working-class people didn’t go to the theatre or venture into an art gallery. He grew up with the sound of heavy machinery and hooters summoning workers to the nearby ship yards; almost all his contemporaries would have expected to tread a similar path into those industries.

However, such certainties and expectancies were about to change as Lee entered his early adulthood. The mines and shipyards were closed down. This experience was to directly inform Lee’s creative mission and define an artistic credo that informs some of his most famous work including Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters – stories that sprang directly from his impressions of that radically shifting social and political landscape.

But always set against those huge social backdrops are immensely powerful and universal personal stories: the gifted individual with a real talent overcoming (or not as the case may be) the adversity and repression of class, social division and economic hardship.

The character of Harry Wilson in the play has a searing intellect. Bill Feaver, who met the original pitmen painters, said Harry was one of the most intelligent individuals he had ever met. After the war and the landslide Labour victory that brought about the welfare state, the nationalisation of the pits and an education act that allowed working-class people access to higher education, Harry’s son went on to study philosophy at Oxford University: a privilege denied Harry’s generation but made possible by the part he played in attempting to create a better and more just world.

What was unique about the real pitmen painters was they made their life and work as one through art. As Harry says in the play: “That’s why we should be proud and that’s why we will continue to do what we are doing: making our lives Art because…well because we are alive, here and now….”

How does your life story affect how you understand this play?

Whilst I’m clearly interested in the world of the play, its subject matter and its themes, it is the character of Robert Lyon that is probably closest to my own experience. As a person who has spent the vast majority of a life working as an artist in the theatre attempting to reach audiences‘ hearts and minds and to educate and empower young people as participants in dramatic activity, the character‘s desire to inspire and politicise and to delight and enlighten through art is representative of my ambitions and aspirations as a theatre practitioner.

Extracted from the National Theatre background pack for The Pitmen Painters

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