Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Edward Bawden at Dulwich Picture Gallery

I finally went to see the Edward Bawden exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery and I'm pleased I've finally seen it. I don't really know anything about Bawden but have bought some of his designs on cards in the past and that's it. I had a lot to learn.

Bowden seems to have done a bit of everything including film posters, adverts for the Tube, watercolour landscapes, book covers and illustrations, portraits as a war artist, lots of prints, Christmas cards for Fortnum & Mason, designs for menus for fancy restaurants... you name it, he probably did it. I had no idea that he was an official War Artist in the Second World War or that he was taught by Paul Nash. So much that I didn't know.

His early works seem to focus on commercial art and watercolour landscapes, some of which look like they include ink pen drawings. All of his works were on a human scale, not the large wall-sized paintings many of his contemporaries were starting to do. I always have a thing about big paintings - they're too big for the average wall so aren't aimed at you or me, but rather at rich people or corporations or public spaces. I prefer something that will fit on my wall thank you, and all of Bawden's fit that criteria.

I like that he seemed to do different series of works - markets in London, landmarks, gardens and such like. This one is Borough Market under London Bridge with Southwark Cathedral behind. He also did a great print of Brighton pier.

I liked his illustrations for an edition of Aesops Fables including the hare and the tortoise and the lion and the gnat. You've got to feel sorry for that poor Grrrr Lion squirming and suffering with the nasty gnat. He has a lovely touch for telling stories through his art - who needs words when you see the lion's eyes and see him squirming on the ground.

The exhibition is only on for another couple of weeks so see it while you can.

'The Lehman Trilogy' at the National Theatre

'The Lehman Trilogy' is a play in three parts, each about an hour long, that tells the story of the three brothers that built the Lehman conglomerate and their children and grandchildren on Wall Street from 1848 to 2008. It's a very narrative play - this happened, then that, then one of the brothers had this idea and then that happened, and so on. But, you know what? It really pulled me in so that I wanted to know what happened next. And for that, I largely put it down to the mesmerising first monologue by Simon Russell Beale that dragged me in and made me sit up and listen. I was very impressed with that.

There's a really powerful clarity to the piece, with the writer clearly picking and choosing events to back his vision for the play and that's part of its strength. I couldn't help but wonder if any of the descendants of the family had seen the play and what they thought about it?

The play opens with Henry Lehman getting off the boat in New York, a good Bavarian Jew who has learned to drink and gamble on his journey west, and who opens a store in Alabama. He's then joined by his younger brother and finally by a third brother. The shop prospers and they become cotton traders, inventing the role of middle-men. Henry dies but the middle brother. Emanuel, heads off to New York to open a trading office while Mayer stays in Alabama to run the cotton business. Both somehow survive the Civil War and build the business that comes to focus on trading different commodities in New York.

The next generation appears to take on their roles in steering the company and expanding it into new areas. Then their children appear to take on the company and take it through the stock market crash of 1928 and on through the decades, expanding into new territory like films and computers. Then the greedies appear after the Lehmans have been ousted from their own company and we head towards the 2008 world financial crash.

The play takes place within a rotating set that remains the same throughout, a modern office suite of an office, waiting room and conference room, glass walls and bright lighting. The backdrop was a giant screen for different projections and there are various piles of storage boxes to vary the set. I was't too keen on the set to start off with but when they started writing on the glass walls - signs for the shop, numbers dead in the Civil War - it started to win me over with its versatility and its promise of what was to come.

All the parts were played by the same three actors: Simon Russell Beale as Henry Lehman, Ben Miles as Emanuel and Adam Godley as Mayer. They played the female parts as well as their own children and grandchildren and wore the same frock coats throughout, occasionally turning up the collars. It was definitely a tour de force for each of them and so many, many words to remember. I was very keen on the whole thing and wanted to know what happened next, keen to get back in from the two intervals scheduled to break it up. The linear narrative kept my interest in wanting to know the next part of the story.

I suspect that part of the attraction of this tale is that it's the story of so many families of Americans - parent or grandparents or great-grandparents seeking a better life in America and most making it, though not to the extent of the Lehman brothers. I wonder how many Americans can trace their ancestry in America back to 1848?

The play was written by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power, and directed by Sam Mendes with Es Devlin as the designer. The play really touched something in me that makes me pleased to have seen it. The endless words must've been a challenge to the three actors to memorise, especially for such a long play. Go and see it if you can, it's well worth it.

'Fun Home' at the Young Vic

Last week we went to see 'Fun Home' at the Young Vic, a new musical that won loads of awards on Broadway and has opened for a short run here. It's a rather strange tale based on a comic book of the author drawing her life story in comic form to help her come to terms with her family, who she is and her relationship with her dead father. She's a lesbian who only finds out that her dad is gay after she comes out to her family after going away to college.

The play opens with Alison wandering onto the stage to start plotting out the next instalment of her comic and that's when the flashbacks start and we're introduced to her younger self, her father and mother and two brothers. That sets the format for the play, with lots of flashbacks to different episodes of her life to try to shed light on what was really happening. We see three versions of Alison that I've categorised as eight years old, 18 years old and 28 years old.

Her mother and father are both teachers and the father doubles as the local funeral director (hence the title of the play). We gradually learn more about the father as he chats up former students to have sex with them and, on a trip to New York, leaves his children asleep in the hotel room so he can go out cruising. We learn little about her mother until near the end when she reveals her suffering over the years, coping with the police getting involved with her husband, her shame and loneliness, knowing that she's the optional extra in his life.

It's a musical so there's a song for every scene and the whole cast sing at different points. The three children perform a Jackson 5-esque song while playing around a funeral casket and the eight year old Alison sings a 'coming out' song after seeing a butch lesbian in a diner. One of my favourite songs was sung by student Alison after having sex with her new girlfriend for the first time, and how she tells us that her dissertation is going to be about her spine so she can examine it in detail and often. Young love, eh?

The main characters were the three Alisons and the father and I thought all the Alisons were very good - Harriet Turnbull as young Alison, Eleanor Kane as the student and Kaisa Hammerlund as the adult. The father was rather unsympathetic and charmless and played by Zubin Varla who was OK but didn't bring anything to the role to make him a bit more likeable. The mother was played by Jenna Russell whose only solo song was towards the end of the play when she explained her unhappiness to Alison while explaining that her dad was gay. It was really touching. Also a little shout out to Cherrelle Skeete as student Alison's girlfriend.

It's an interesting play and it was nice to hear the audience reaction at times as they recognised or related to some of the scenes. I'm very pleased that I've seen it but I can't actually remember any of the songs or have any great wish to see it again. Sometimes when I leave the theatre I know I want a second viewing but I was happy with one viewing of this play. It didn't really touch me and there was a hint of the 'sad life of the gay man' about it, the usual stereotype. On the other hand, realising - or rather admitting - that she was lesbian was a release for Alison, which was far more positive. Good on the Young Vic for putting this on.