Review: The Lehman Trilogy
By Jo Egan – Artistic director and a founding member of Macha Productions
Adapted from Stefano Massini’s play, the National Theatre’s Lehman Trilogy is a titan undertaking that sumptuously delivers. You might remember; investment banker’s Lehman Brothers bankruptcy (the largest in US history) that triggered the 2008 financial disaster.
Who Lehman Brothers were and how their cash cow went to the dogs is the thrust of the play. The Lehman Brothers: Henry, Emanuel and Meyer emigrated from Bavaria to Alabama in the mid-1840s. As monster inventions fuel massive productivity, they created a new role; middle-men between cotton producers and textile manufacturers. Their genius is their capacity to continually reinvent themselves as brokers investing in the railroad, radio, television and oil. As Philip Lehman points out: “Money is the flour that makes our bread.”
Ben Power’s ritualistic and rhythmic script narrates and introduces characters in third person. Having established characters, the actors step out of the narrator role into the characters they’ve introduced. To begin it feels too mechanical to carry these three one-act plays but the combination of pace, sublime performances, Sam Mendes direction, ingenious set, projections and music, utterly seduces.
The set is a revolving glass box, open-ended. A cyclorama of projections depicting burning Alabama cottonfields, civil war and the constantly evolving New York skyline creates the backdrop.
In every aspect it bangs the excellence bell. You might say why wouldn’t it with the budget the National Theatre invests, nevertheless actors Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley give you your money’s worth and 100 per cent more. They’re at the top of their game – the whole production an acting masterclass. Adam Godley wins the gold star for his elastic physicality. Tall, thin with Prince Charles ears his characters flip from Mayer Lehman to debutante to small boy. It’s his portrayal of the last Lehman, Bobby, performing the twist like a deaths-head spider surrounded by all-consuming projections of the Dow Jones rising, rising and rising about him that’s the comical, compelling climax of the play.
You end by feeling a sense of depletion as the Lehman company goes under. As you swap New York for the Belfast night air, you might remind yourself that you’re still living with the chronic austerity induced by the Lehman brand of capitalism. It’s this clever ripple – the play revealing the audience willingness to be seduced by a story well told that you ponder as you leave the Lehman’s to their destiny.