The Lehman Trilogy
National Theatre Lyttleton, 18th September 2018
So I gather this staging of Stefano Massimi’s play The Lehman Trilogy is a very different take from that lauded across Europe after its premiere in 2015 in Italy. No cast of thousands here. Just three amazing actors in Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, and a minimalist set bearing all the usual hallmarks, (revolving glass cube, neon lights, monochrome, simple props to be shuffled around by the cast), of its designer Es Devlin, with symbiotic and effective video panoramas courtesy of Luke Halls, and thrilling sound and lighting design from Nick Powell and Jon Clark . All this from a director Sam Mendes, who is normally master of the maximalist, last seen in The Ferryman.
Of course no matter how good the production it all starts with the text. Here the Deputy Artistic Director of the NT, and dramaturg maestro, Ben Power has condensed the original play into the sprightliest 3 hours (ex intervals) imaginable. Of course there is a history lesson, but Mr Power, I assume reflecting the Italian original, draws out the themes and repeated motifs, and the key characters, the original three brothers, Henry, Emmanuel and Mayer, and the next generations, Herbert, Philip and then scion Bobbie. The final chapters, as the family cedes control to “outsiders”, and the collapse presided over by the hubristic bully Richard Fuld is, as many others have observed, a bit of a rush, but I don’t think that really matters. This is a story of the founding roots, expansion and degradation of American capitalism and, specifically, how a family of Bavarian Jewish emigres went from a farm supplies shop in Montgomery, Alabama to become one of the most powerful global financial dynasties ever seen. Lehman Bros is fascinating, yes because it is no longer there, but also because it was, to all intents and purposes, the first of its kind.
Our generation knows the importance of these institutions thanks to the crisis of 2008, still impacting the global economy a decade later. Lehman Bros, on that fateful 15th September, was the sacrifice made pour encourager les autres. The biggest bankruptcy in US history, (though the US, European and Japanese “franchises” largely ended up with Barclays and Nomura), Lehmmn was the catalyst for the intervention which we all all still paying for with, at root, the “wrong” cost of capital. The play though resolutely shows that cyclical crises are endemic to financial capitalism, and not just in the events of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. 1857 and 1873 also get a look in. The mis-pricing of complex risk is built into the system. It won’t go away.
We start at the end though with the iconic boxes, which staff used to carry out belongings after Chapter 11 was declared, piled up on the modern office set. These boxes in various configurations, with a few chairs, tables, a spot of graffiti and our imaginations, go on to signify the humble one room shop, the expansion into cotton-broking, the office in New York set up in 1860, the homes of the great and good in the story, particularly the families the three brothers marry in to, a synagogue, the boardrooms and trading floors of the palaces of the post WW II years.
And all the supporting characters, wives, children, business associates, rabbis, friends, even a tightrope-artiste, all are played by our three actors. Throughout they wear the formal frock coat attire from the mid C19. So all these “extras” are conjured up with accent, movement, stance, attitude. Now Simon Russell Beale relishes this sort of caper but Adam Godley near matched him, especially when it came to squeezing humour out of his impersonations. All three of these actors have been at the top of their game for years. Whether on stage, large or small screen, it is a fair bet that they will steal the show in whatever they appear in. To have them all together was revelatory. This is an abstracted story. With a narrative arc of this scale, across this much time and space, intricately juxtaposing the familial with the social, political and economic, it couldn’t be anything else. So everything we see, hear and learn is formed from the basic building blocks of acting and direction. Yet it is so, so rich, symphonic if you will. Look out for the recurring nightmare scenes. Just one example. Simply stunning.
Oh and there was one other genius involved. Candida Caldicot. The soundtrack to this odyssey conjured up live with one piano.
With this story, this cast, this director, this text and this creative team this was always likely to be a winner. No surprise it was an early sell out. This play in this adaptation will re-appear. No question. Whether you get acting of this quality again I am not so sure.