The London-born artist Joan Eardley, who settled in Scotland to study and whose artistic career was cut short when she died—aged 42—in 1963, is best known for two very different subjects of her painting: the extraordinarily candid—albeit, at times cartoonish—portraits of the “weans” (young children) in the long-since demolished Townhead area of Glasgow, and the landscapes and seascapes from the small fishing village of Catterline, just south of Aberdeen.
The result is undoubtedly one private viewing which fully deserves to receive as wide a public audience as possible.
Although critically acclaimed during her lifetime, it’s fair to say that Eardley herself would probably be surprised by the continued attention paid to her work; public interest in a recent exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art was such that opening hours and dates had to be extended. Not only that, but the exhibition also provided a “hook” to hang this new play from Heroica Theatre Company, celebrating Eardley’s life and work: a play that will, for the most part, be performed “promenade-style” in selected art galleries around Scotland, including the venue of the exhibition, “Modern Two”.
However, with no two venues being the same—either in size, style or layout—there seems little point in focusing particularly on the promenade aspects of the production; not least because, on the evening of this review, the show had settled briefly in the Hawthornden Lecture Theatre within the bowels of the National Gallery of Scotland in the heart of Edinburgh—as near a traditional seated venue as you can get without being a theatre. So instead of the audience following the cast around, the cast ran around the audience, not least as happy-go-lucky kids singing naughty songs.
Joan Eardley: A Private View is the latest of seven plays written by Anna Carlisle for Heroica Theatre Company, supporting the company’s goal to celebrate the lives of “maverick and unsung women”. Admittedly, the extent to which Eardley herself fits this bill is open to debate; she’s hardly “unsung”, while the only obvious “maverick” aspect of her life would be her sexuality, although the word “lesbian” is used only once, and in relation to her aunt. The title remains apt, however; you leave this production with a real sense of having met the woman, and glimpsing her life and soul.
This is thanks to Carlisle’s restrained script and a nuanced performance by Alexandra Mathie; thanks to both we experience the modest yet passionate woman whose passion for painting was to “capture the moment of ecstasy”. Mathie is ably supported by John Kielty and Ashley Smith, who between them play the small group of life-long friends. The result is undoubtedly one private viewing which fully deserves to receive as wide a public audience as possible.