The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre
Three brothers arrive in the Land of the Free, Jewish immigrants from the old world seeking opportunity in the new. Henry (Simon Russell Beale), Emmanuel (Ben Miles) and Mayer (Adam Godley): the head, the arm and the everything in between, their lives the distillation of the American Dream. As branch upon branch sprouts from the family tree, their business expands and transforms: cotton to coffee, trains to the uninhibited movement of money. It’s the rise of the middlemen, the gradual zombification of capitalism until it’s a monster that can’t be stopped.
The Lehman Trilogy, a bit like the Young Vic’s The Inheritance, is as close as theatre gets to the door stop Great American Novel: a multigenerational family epic, sweeping through decades of US economic upheaval, following a name now and forever synonymous with financial ruin. Only – surprise – it comes from the keyboard of Italy’s Stefano Massini, adapted here by Ben Power for its English-language debut.
Playing not just the Lehmans, but the entire ecosystem that surrounds them, the three leads give a plethora of mountainous performances. There’s the hungry, greedy gravitas of Miles’s Emmanuel; Russell Beale’s controlling Philip, a second-generation banker obsessed with picking the right bet; and Godley’s Bobby, the final Lehman, acting increasingly like Willy Wonka in his glass elevator. Just a fraction of the sterling work done by each actor.
Es Devlin’s austere glass cage of business, set against a curving projection of the New York skyline, is like watching black-and-white newspaper clippings come to life. Spinning, turning, twisting, pacing. It’s rare for the production to slow down, Bond ace Sam Mendes creating a sense of momentum that, even if it wobbles, is never – well, almost never – relinquished, hurtling towards an ending we all know is coming.
It should be savage. And yet…the scope of Massini’s narrative, and the sheer style of Mendes’s production, lend the play a tone that is perhaps too romantic, too respectful. If it’s not glorifying or condoning the actions of these men in any way, not really, neither is it truly getting into the grit and dirt of what a company like Lehman Brothers actually stands for. Or, if it is, then that dirt sort of feels like it has been moulded into a disingenuous immigrant success story. Though the original brothers may not have been slavers, that didn’t prevent them from profiting off the slave trade, making gold from cotton.
By the end the play does finally run out of steam, just when you want it to be at its sharpest, the focus on the family preventing the story from properly grappling with anything but the seeds of the financial crisis. Yet maybe Massini doesn’t need to say any more. We’ve already seen the world put up for sale.
The Lehman Trilogy is at the National Theatre from 4th July until 20th October 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.