Joan Eardley | Ideas In The Mind

Writer Anna Carlisle introduces a new play: Joan Eardley | A Private View.

Just some of the questions thrown our way during the development workshops towards Joan Eardley: A Private View, now honed and almost ready for performance in 16 UK art galleries in May and June – in no time at all, in fact!

And we took notice. After all, public readings at development workshops are designed largely to test whether we, as theatre producers, are achieving our goals and getting to grips with the reality and challenges of the subject.

Amongst the answers is that a play is not merely speech. It’s sound and visuals and all sorts of mood-creating devices. In the case of this play, we will enter the space that exists between the Eardley paintings and the viewer, and explore the space to see if we can touch the energy that created Joan’s paintings: finally sparking off a relationship between them and where they came from. By embodying the artist theatrically, we allow people to interact directly with that energy.

Audrey Walker, Eardley with a painting of beehives in garden of No.1 The Row, Catterline (detail) © Audrey Walker

Yes, specifically in Joan Eardley’s case, we needed to respect that she was probably the last person who would have wanted her private life pried into. So we built a different set of premises for exploration: what parallels exist between Joan’s different media – drawing, pastels, gouache and oil - and the different phases of her personal life?

  • Who were the women – aspiring or successful artists in their own right - who helped Joan grow as an artist?
  • What was it about the Samson children of 1950s’ Townhead that they became such a vital dimension of her life?
  • What made such a diffident woman socially such a relatively assured woman sexually, especially in that era?
  • What hidden quality in this so-called ‘bull-dozing’ woman made all her friends and lovers stay faithfully with her till the very last days of her tragically shortened life?
Development workshop at the Hawthornden Lecture Theatre, Scottish National Gallery, May 2016.
During rehearsals for 'Joan Eardley, A Private View'

We talked to surviving Eardley family members, friends and painting subjects (yes, the Samsons!). We built a backdrop of Joan's key favourite places behind her: the comforting studio and a welcoming fishing village. Finally, we gave her two voices: an outer one that was barely civil at the best of times, one that cavilled and berated, self-loathed and despaired; and an inner voice that crowed poetic at the power of love, cooed at the beauty of Catterline, cajoled and coaxed her bairns, and ignored and deplored the cruelty of her early and terminal illness.

Then we took the innovative Heroica Theatre Company, writer Anna Carlisle, director Marilyn Imrie, three intrepid actors (Alexandra Mathie, Ashley Smith and John Kielty) and a terrific creative team (musician, choreographer, creative artist and designer) and we cooked up a teeming Eardley world peppered with vibrancy. The Joan Eardley we have created – with truth as our backstop - is interesting and funny. The ‘bairns’ are cheeky and engaging. Angus Neil is loveable, if parasitical. Joan’s forever friends Margot Sandeman, Audrey Walker and Lil Neilson are full of love and all remain, to Joan, even more constant than the sea.

Joan Eardley, Seascape (Foam and Blue Sky), 1962. © Estate of Joan Eardley. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016

Joan once said:

‘… I’ve got ideas in my mind – and each painting seems to give me ideas for another

… and that’s a terrific good feeling.’

For ‘ideas’ we can surely read ‘words’ - words which, like Joan Eardley’s paintings, are weighty and compelling: every single one of them.

'Joan Eardley, A Private View' will take place at the Galleries from the 5th-7th of May, 2017, before touring the UK. Please check our event page for available tickets, or to learn more about the touring perfomances please visit Heroica Theatre Company's website.