AT three and a half hours, The Lehman Trilogy may appear daunting. But do not be put off because this is National Theatre at its very best. The time travels Concorde like. Magnificent, riveting theatre. A play that packs an almighty punch. Informative, amusing and clever.
The play, directed superbly by Sam Mendes, tracks the story of the Lehman brothers from the first step Hayum Lehman made on American soil in 1844 to the failing of the investment bank – Lehman Brothers – in September 2008. A collapse that triggered a global financial crisis and nearly brought down with it some of Britain’s biggest banks. Ten years down the line, we are still living with the consequences of the financial chain reaction to the collapse of Lehman Brothers .
The Lehman Trilogy is part an American history lesson as we witness the rise in the fortunes of the brothers – Hayum (Simon Russell Beale), Mayer (Adam Godley) and Emanuel (Ben Miles) – from their initial base in the cotton rich lands of Alabama, through to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers 164 years later (at which point there was not a Lehman in sight).
In between, wars are fought and funded, crises are overcome and the Great Depression survived. But Lehman, the business, keeps evolving – from selling clothes to cotton workers, through to cotton and coffee trading, the funding of the railways and in the end high finance and the pursuit of profit at any cost. In between, Lehmans procreate and die. Some carry on the family tradition of making money. Others get diverted into other pursuits such as politics.
All fascinating and absorbing to watch. A lesson in the good and bad of western capitalism. An advert for the American dream, warts and all.
Yet it is the performance of Beale, Godley and Miles that makes The Lehman Trilogy marvellous theatre. Initially, they play the founding brothers. Hayum (or Henry upon landing in New York), all hard work. Emanuel, with one eye always on the next opportunity. Mayer, a conciliator, expert in keeping the peace between his two siblings.
But as the brothers marry, have children and ultimately die (Henry is first to depart), they play the sons and grandsons who carry on waving the Lehman flag (Bobby Lehman, grandson of Emanuel, was the last to work for Lehman Brothers before dying in 1969). They even play those they meet along the way – prospective wives, challenging wives, rabbi and business associates. Through sheer brilliance, they pull it off.
The staging takes place in a giant partitioned – and revolving – Perspex box. Cardboard boxes – symbols of Lehman’s 2008 demise when staff left with boxes containing their possessions – are stacked within, used as props. Often as seats – but also as an imaginary piano. The video backdrop changes as time goes on – from the seas of the Atlantic through to the cotton fields of Alabama and skyscrapers of New York. Great work from set designer Es Devlin and video designer Luke Halls. Candida Caldicot also plays piano rather splendidly just off stage.
The Lehman Trilogy, a play written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, is unmissable. You do not need an interest in finance to enjoy it. Just a love of theatre.