10 years on from the financial crisis and its effects are still with us; continued austerity, political instability around the world and a hankering for the mythological peace of a past that never was. Many reports, books and films have been made to try to explain what happened in September 2008 as banks toppled and governments took strategic decisions on whether to rescue major institutions from bankruptcy. Years of accumulated debt, resold and repackaged, complex and unstable finally brought the house down, and the first to fall was Lehman Brothers, a firm built by three brothers who moved from 1840s Germany to Alabama to sell suits and fabrics, who became the architects of a new mode of business, they were “the middle men”.
A success across Europe since its premiere in Italy in 2015, Stefano Massini’s epic and much anticipated three-hour story of those brothers, their sons and grandsons finally arrives at the National Theatre, adapted by Ben Power and directed by Sam Mendes. Already close to selling-out, anyone with a ticket should congratulate themselves while everyone else should queue for day seats, try Friday Rush or beg for returns because The Lehman Trilogy is utterly spectacular, a rare and beautifully-made theatrical triumph that deserves all the plaudits that will come raining down at this week’s press night.
In 1844, Henry Lehman, known as “the Head”, arrives in America to establish a modest but buoyant clothing store in a small Alabama town. Soon joined by brothers Emanuel (“The Arm”) and Mayer (“Spud”) the business expands, acting as the go-between for the plantation and cotton mill owners while amassing a sizeable fortune. After Henry’s death, Emanuel moves to New York to trade coffee, soon ordering his remaining brother to join him, where they expand their financial interests and their line. Outstripped by the next generation, Emanuel’s son Philip takes the firm in a new direction, but in the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, Emanuel’s grandson Bobby inherits the firm and 160 years of trading decisions suddenly come back to haunt them.
Massini’s approach is remarkably theatrical, using a spoken-narrative in which the actors describe their own character’s activities and each other’s, while dramatizing particular conversations or encounters. This becomes deeply engaging and adds a fluid quality to a quick succession of scenes. It departs from films like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short by sidestepping the complexities of the financial dealings that led to the 2008 crash. Instead, throughout each of the play’s three sections, shown together on one night, it is the human story, the family tragedy that Massini wishes us to see, how a man content to own a single shop spawned a trading empire that became greedier with each generation. The monetary complexities of loans to people who couldn’t pay, of buying debt and tricky stock manoeuvres you can find elsewhere, this is not so much what happened as why.
Part I: Three Brothers takes the story from Henry’s embarkation to Mayer joining Emanuel in New York, Part II: Fathers and Sons picks up the story until the morning of the Wall Street Crash, while Part III: The Immortals bookends its narrative with financial crises, finishing on that fatal autumn day in 2008. Over the course of three gripping hours, Massini contrasts growing profit with declining religious observance as the once devoted Jewish family trade-in their sacred rituals to focus on business as usual, and it’s notable that days of mourning and beard growth are, generations later, reduced to a few minutes silence before the continual clamour of the trading floor resumes.
And within that, there is a continual reminder of the wealth and status of America founded on waves of immigration from Europe, with their continual challenge to earn social status. This plays out not only in the original Lehmans trying to win prospective brides among the established elite, but in the growing Americanisation of their children and grandchildren, with Massini arguing that the Lehmans born in the USA have a different hunger, one that breeds confidence and inalienable right. Even in the post-Lehman family era at the end of the play it is a Hungarian who heads the company, a statement on the continued role that immigration has played in the shaping of a superpower.
What Power’s adaptation and Mendes’s direction does so brilliantly is to draw out the changing notion of belief, of fate and of trust. The original brothers have integrity, they believe in the power of their God and ask the men of the South, the plantation owners and local governors, to trust them personally, which they do. A century on and that belief is now invested in the mythical money that sits on balance sheets and trading screens, the men themselves, like Philip, Bobby and their non-Lehman successors at the company feel like Gods themselves, commanding empires of words and numbers, none of it with any physical substance.
Power and Mendes also carefully mark the various times in Lehman Brothers’ history when the firm came close to failure, when the literal and metaphorical fires almost consumed them. The burning cotton fields that led them to their first government investment after the American Civil War sit notably against the dark days of 1929 when somehow the family clung on, emerging into a new era of business even stronger than before, until the post-war division between banking and trading consumed them. There is a huge tragedy about a family who begin and end with nothing. As Simon Russell Beale’s character momentously states in Part III, “they were immortal until they weren’t.”
There really is no better choice for a project like this than Mendes whose recent stage-work has created a feel of epic intimacy. With his King Lear for the National some years ago and in particular The Ferryman (of which Mendes’s direction was like musical conduction), his ability to paint on a huge canvas, to show size, scale, history and reach while at the same time boiling that down to the personal relationship between two people is a pure joy. He wants the audience to care for the original brothers, to appreciate their desire to succeed, their fascination with America and how touching the destruction of their legacy becomes. Yet in every decision, every dream, every change of direction, Mendes makes you feel the long-term ramifications, knowing it’s another step towards their own destruction a hundred years later.
Set-designer Es Devlin has done some of her best work here on Lehman, and like many before her reduces the expanse of the Lyttelton stage by creating a huge glass and steel modern office set with large boardroom and two smaller meeting spaces, amongst which the actors create a century of history. It may have been simpler to fly-in backdrops for each era, but instead the three brothers walk like ghosts around the future, the office-set a constant reminder of where all their effort and toil ended-up. It has an ominous quality that works beautifully with Luke Halls wrap-around video screens that project scenes of the cotton fields of the Alabama countryside one minute and New York skyscrapers the next, all predominantly in black and white, views from the glass office windows, a presence but not a distraction.
Mendes uses both to considerable effect, rotating the set as a nod to the passing years, or during moments of high drama as events spiral out of control. One of the best scenes is during the latter part of the show as the last Lehman, Bobby, and his colleagues do a twist to indicate the wildness of the traders doing their inexplicable work, and rather than rotate the office, the video screen display of stocks start to spin, building to a rapid blur so that it becomes hard to tell what is still and what is moving, a clever and pointed comment about the heady free-for-all that became the 1980s and 90s on Wall Street.
The Lehman Triology has six major characters and a secondary cast of wives, children, colleagues, Rabbis and politicians that could easily require a sizeable company of actors. Unlike earlier version with a much larger cast, Director Sam Mendes slims this down to just three actors onstage for the duration who play all the roles between them and, while dressed for 1844 and standing in 2008, have nothing but words to conjure for us the history and atmosphere of America from the coach-and-horses days of the mid-nineteenth century South to the New York of the twenty-first century. A feat which they achieve extremely effectively and with incredible power.
These are tour de force performances from Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, who work superbly together to create a much wider ensemble with just a few “bankers boxes”, the cardboard storage containers that so many employees used to remove their things from their failed company, as props. Russell Beale’s Henry may be short-lived but has a determination to succeed, and as the “Head” establishes what will be a considerable legacy. But Russell Beale clearly has most fun as comic sketches of so many other characters, girlish debutants and embittered wives, precocious children and eventually a more substantial role as Emanuel’s son, the rather cold Philip, who first inherited the business, shocking his father with the shift from products to money as its core focus.
As Emanuel, Ben Miles brings confidence and command to the suave middle brother who charms the Alabama gentry as easily as his wins-over New York society. Emanuel is the most ambitious of the brothers, eager and determined to expand, but shrewd in his choices and it is no surprise that it is his line that inherits the bank. Miles lends him great charisma which he later brings to the smaller role of Herbert (Mayer’s son) who utilised the family charm and killer instinct to become Governor of New York and eventually a Senator. Miles also brings home the stark personal cost of financial collapse at the start of Part III, ominously and emotively revealing the quick success of stockbroker suicides in 1929.
Mayer Lehman is the most reticent of the three, and Adam Godley reveals a quieter, more thoughtful character, nicknamed “Spud” as a child, and not considered the intellectual equal of his siblings. Yet, he rises to the occasion after Henry’s death to partner his remaining brother in the firm. Godley also plays Emanuel’s grandson Bobby (Philip’s son), an aloof aesthete who invests in art while, as an old man, takes the firm into the computer age, heralding its own destruction as the company owner unable to understand the mechanics of the business he’s running.
You are completely in their thrall from start to finish, fully invested in the simplicity of the story-telling as the actors transport you with them across country and through time. The Lehman Trilogy is a substantial achievement, a beautifully balanced depiction of the role of one family in a much wider history of America. It’s focus on belief – first in God and then in money – argues that the financial crisis was caused by wider society turning its face away from the banking industry, unable and unwilling to comprehend the complex systems it had generated, because all the while the money kept rolling-in that faith was justified. Ultimately though, this brilliant and powerful piece of theatre reveals the sadness of legacy, how easy destruction can be when you reach too high, and the tragedy of three brother betrayed by their own successors.
The Lehman Trilogy is at the National Theatre until 20 October, and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.