Lyttelton, National Theatre, London ****
The cast would be worth the ticket alone, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley. They could read the old-fashioned telephone directory and still make it sound significant.
But the story they tell between them of the US entrepreneurs and bankers, the Lehman Brothers, their rise and fall, is, truly a monumental comment on our life and times.
As Tony Kushner’s Angels in America spoke of a certain moment when time stopped and life was reshaped so Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy will surely come to be seen as signifying and encapsulating the financial event in 2008 that changed lives.
9/11 2001 had a similar charge. Sept 15, 2008 was the date when the Lehman Brothers bank, in operation for 158 years, filed for bankruptcy – the biggest in American history.
The story of the rise and fall of the German Jewish family’s fortunes in the US, as first immigrants then assimilated pillars of society and investors in the monolith that has become the American economy, it’s a lesson in history that should give us all pause. Its resonances are profound and applicable whether we look at its themes of immigration, Judaism and its work ethics, the business of survival, money-making, greed or even, maybe in parenthesis, patriarchy.
For Sam Mendes and Ben Power’s English version is a wholly male enterprise – just the three actors, Russell Beale, Miles, and Godley covering all the characters involved including women and children.
Massini’s original version, first seen in Paris five years ago, apparently ran for five hours. A quick look at the 2015 Italian production, produced at the Milan’s Piccolo Theatre and the last by its famous and much loved artistic director, Luca Ronconi, shows Mendes’ adopting a not dissimilar abstract approach.
Es Devlin’s clever, open, revolving frame allows maximum flexibility, whether as a modern, glass fronted Manhattan office building or a small shop front in Alabama – the Lehman’s first acquisition on arrival in America in the 1840s. Henry (Russell Beale), the eldest – the `head’ – arrived first, followed by Emanuel (Miles) – `the arm’ – and three years later, by Mayer (Godley) – `Spud’ – the youngest designated to keep the peace between the `head’ and the `arm’.
The simplicity of Devlin’s design allows for maximum speed in Ben Power’s cut back adaptation (only three hours instead of the Italian five) in a tale that gathers momentum as the three brothers move from cotton trading to loans for southern plantations to eventually and inevitably New York and the explosion and development of material exchanges to money exchanges dealing in financial commodities. In between it takes in the Civil War, the Great Depression, two World Wars and Amerca’s expansion into the dominant world economic force of today.
Told with gentle humour and great narrative skill, its style reminded me time and again of previous great British novel-to-stage productions, from the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby to Shared Experience and onwards.
Massini’s additional talent is beguilingly to get inside the head’s of Henry, Emanuel and Mayer in a form that becomes analogous to a prose poem with particular rhythms, repetitions and singular motifs and reaching a crescendo as a metaphor of the American dream turning sour.
Occasionally, this can back-fire. But cumulatively it provides a steady heartbeat which becomes positively electric, along with Luke Hall’s spinning videos, as the 21st century races into over-drive. And collapse.
Take from it what you will as either a terrific, sobering yarn or haunted, cautionary tale, it is also a telling and sympathetic portrait of the American Jewish immigrant experience and way of life, be it their soaring entrepreneurial spirit, or keeping religious rituals. Indeed, one of Massini’s points seems to be that once you forget your roots, who you are and allow profit to become your only goal, you lose yourself.
A very moral conclusion, in this case, their personal downfall also triggered a tsunami of global significance. From the micro to the macro.
Despite its brilliance, however – and there’s no doubting Mendes and the trio produce a tour de force that will surely see them all the way to Broadway – It also can’t be denied that it plays uncomfortably into certain Jewish stereotypes. Coming myself from a partly Jewish background, its ethos of profit above all things remains an alien one to me and thus something of an eye-opener.
A reality check, though for all of us – this is the way the world runs, this is Trump and no doubt Putin’s world – Russell Beale is, as always, a star performer, whether as Henry, or Mayer’s wife, or a troublesome baby. Miles gives Emanuel a subtle, troubled, volcanic edge whilst Godley has a moment of pure magic as `Spud’/Mayer falling victim to the financial trading phenomenon and to the ground as a twisted, grotesque gargoyle.
Full of omens, dreams and spiritual indications, perhaps Massini’s lasting and most arresting image is the parallel he draws between a (fictional?) New York tightrope walker and second generation, Philip Lehman’s financial risk-taking. As Solomon falls , so too does Philip. And the Lehman Brothers empire.
Coming to a juddering halt, the play’s climax, is, unnervingly, very sudden and abrupt – presumably deliberately. So was the bank’s bankruptcy.
But from a structural point of view, it feels unsatisfactory that all we get is an intimation that the catalyst was Bobbie (Godley) appointing Glucksman, a Hungarian Jew, to be in charge of the trading branch of the bank. When Bobbie dies, the last of the family, the descent is quick and decisive. Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy gives a whole new meaning to the term `family values’!
All or some of Massini’s themes about financial mayhem may have been covered by others expertly before. One thinks of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Caryl Churchill’s prescient, prophetic, Serious Money, as far back as 1987 in the wake of Thatcher’s deregulation of the City. Deregulation, Reaganomics, what a baleful harvest they wrought two decades on. But few with such an elegiac touch.
Like two of its major successes last year, Oslo and Network, and despite some flaws, this is another unmissable state-of-our-world account from the NT. Do see, if you can. Probably returns only.
The Lehman Trilogy
by Stefano Massini
adapted by Ben Power
Henry Lehman: Simon Russell Beale
Emanuel Lehman: Ben Miles
Mayer Lehman: Adam Godley
Janitor: Dominik Tiefenthaler
Henry Lehman: Leighton Pugh
Emanuel Lehman: Dominik Tiefenthaler
Mayer Lehman: Will Harrison-Wallace
Aram Armaghanian, Darrel Bailey, Alexander Ballinger, Gary Bland, Stephen Cheriton, John Davitt, Murat Erkek, Chris Fung, Neil Gardner, Robin Hellier, Conor Kennedy, Robert Moore, Tom Nunez, Derek Oppong, Spencer Lee Osborne, Ayo Oyelakin, Greg Page, Drew Paterson, Andrew Pepper, Nick Potts, Mark Steere, Tom Swale
Director: Sam Mendes
Set Designer: Es Devlin
Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Video Designer: Luke Halls
Lighting Designer: Jon Clark
Music & Sound: Nick Powell
Music Director: Candida Caldicot
Movement: Polly Bennett
Associate Director: Zöe Ford
Associate Lighting Designer: Ben Pickersgill
Technical Sound Associate: Dominic Bilkey
Company Voice Work: Charmian Hoare
Casting: Wendy Spon CDG, Bryony Jarvis-Taylor
Literal Translator: Mirella Cheeseman
A co-production with Neal Street Productions
UK premiere of The Lehman Trilogy in the Lyttelton,National Theatre, London, July 12, 2018. Runs to Oct 20, 2018
The world premiere of The Lehman Trilogy was in Paris in 2013. It was staged at the Piccolo Theatre, Milan in 2015 and has had several other major productions subsequently in Europe generally.
Review published on this site, July 18, 2018