The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy - National Theatre

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.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 400 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

7 responses to “The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful and comprehensive review. I was a little concerned by your mention of lacking space for reviews in July and August. If my comments are encroaching on limited space you must let me know. I’ll try to keep this one short, just in case

    “The Lehman Trilogy is utterly spectacular, a rare and beautifully-made theatrical triumph”

    Agree. It was mightily impressive. I’ve had problems with several Simon Russell Beale performances but I’ve never seen him as good on stage as he is in this. Ben Miles I’ve liked in everything I’ve seen him in and Adam Godley I don’t really know but he, too, was superb. I can’t help feeling it might have been even better with a good actress to play the women – some of the depictions came across as a bit Emily Howard, I’m afraid.

    “Massini’s approach is remarkably theatrical, using a spoken-narrative in which the actors describe their own character’s activities and each other’s”

    I certainly thought it worked, though sometimes it seemed more like epic poetry than drama per se (I’m glad I got this point down in writing in the usual place before a very similar thing was said on this evening’s Front Row on R4)

    The story is commendably free of judgemental and/or analytical content, leaving the human story to guide us to our own conclusions. For me, Marx’s message that capitalism has fulfilled its purpose of expanding the means of production and distribution and might now be doing little more than lurching from crisis to crisis came to mind. Or, to put it more simply perhaps, the old saying about money being a good servant but a bad master was well illustrated.

    This trip I also saw Imperium part 1 (comment under your TRH review assuming the moderator clears it) and The One (report in the usual place)

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      I’m really glad you managed to catch this wonderful play, and have no fear about saying as much as you’d like to, I meant I have little space in the diary!

      I certainly agree that this is the best thing I’ve seen Simon Russell Beale do and have long been a fan of Ben Miles. Although perhaps less well known, Adam Godley fits between them seamlessly, and I still find it rather astounding how clearly they created a huge cast of characters, time and place between the three of them.

      Your analysis of the financial developments is very interesting too, and it was pleasing to see a human drama about finance that wasn’t overly weighed down with complex jargon.

      Mendes too I think was absolutely the right choice for this project and he controls it masterfully it a fascinating visual environment. I was just captivated by the whole thing, which is rare indeed!

      I’ll head over to the Reviews Hub for the Imperium report and to the message board for everything else. And if you want to expand on any of this do feel free.

  • JohnA

    Thanks Maryam. I wondered whether you just meant you wouldn’t have enough time but thought I’d better check your website wasn’t limiting the number of characters you could display in a month – something I’ve come across a few times (especially on web forms that ask for your comments but suddenly cut you off after, say, 250 words). Given the standards you set yourself for the reviews here I can well understand that writing a lot of them could be impossible. I have the luxury, on the message board, of just being able to dash off a quick report if I’m short of time. Even then, I tend not to write up things that I see near the end of a run as the main purpose of my reports is to give an idea of whether a show is worth seeing and/or how best to get in.

    I think I said most of the things I meant to say about The Lehmann Trilogy but I might have gone into greater detail if I hadn’t been concerned about ‘space’. For example, my experience with Simon Russell Beale was that I found some of his screen work (most notably Widmerpool and Falstaff) wonderful but seeing him on stage in things like The Hot House, Privates on Parade and King Lear has been a disappointment. It was great to see him really shine in this. I also forgot to mention Sam Mendes – rightly praised in your review – and the fact that, whether it’s a lavish cast of men, women, children and animals as in The Ferryman or a saga distilled into a simple set and delivered by a very small cast on a very big stage he succeeds in getting things just right. I still think I’d have preferred a woman to play the women but I suppose once you’ve decided the actors playing the three founding brothers should play all the other roles it’s more consistent if they play the female roles, too.

    As for the ‘financial’ developments, I always think that the profit motive, which is at the core of the capitalist system more than any previous one, inevitably assigns too much importance to money – which is, in itself, unproductive; so it’s not surprising that I homed in on the fact that the Lehmans’ insoluble problems start not with cotton, coffee or railways but with the decision to go into making money out of money.

    I’m still keen to see Translations and, when I do, I’ll let you know what I think of it. I might also go The Lieutenant of Inishmore when the Aidan Turner groupies have calmed down and day seats are more easily available. Then there’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Exit the King, Red, King Lear and others to fit in between Proms if I can.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John – it’s good to hear more of your thoughts on this, it’s certainly a production that lends itself to considerable discussion.

      I was interested to find out more about how it was staged in other countries, often with a much larger cast, so its a brave choice to cut it to just three, but what a fantastic payoff now. It could be a very different experience if we see it again in a few years time with a more conventional approach.

      On the financial side, I felt that too and it was a notably loaded moment when the firm adjusted to trading money rather than stock, and one of the brothers made that exact point about no longer having physical goods which proved significant.

      Sounds like you have plenty on the agenda for your next visit – Lieutenant of Inishmore is delightfully funny, Red and Translations are superb and Exit the King review to follow. I note no part 2 of Imperium as a priority though.

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    “I was interested to find out more about how it was staged in other countries”

    If you find anything more, please let me know. How strange it would be if the continental productions were mostly representational while we get something that’s almost Regie Theater!

    “and one of the brothers made that exact point about no longer having physical goods which proved significant.”

    That, if memory serves, would be one of the ‘I have a problem with that’ issues. And money, when it acts as a commodity rather than a tool, can be a big problem. That could be why many religions had strict anti-usury rules and why utopian visionaries often looked to a future where money couldn’t exist. Robert Tressell, in his seminal The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914), has a section headed The Great Money Trick. And The Socialist Party of Great Britain*, among others, has always argued that money is anathema to a society organised to meet human need (they were scathing about the Labour Party’s Clause 4:4 “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, arguing that common ownership of exchange is an absurd notion. The SPGB’s own Object, which pre-dates the founding of the Labour Party, refers simply to “the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community’). Of course, there’s no reason why the Lehmans should be overly concerned about doing what’s best for the people in general; but it is at least interesting that people from such different perspectives should be sceptical about getting too involved with such a chimera.

    “I note no part 2 of Imperium as a priority though.”

    As I hinted in my message board report, I haven’t completely ruled out the idea of seeing ‘Dictator’ but it’s a very low priority (I would almost certainly, given a straight choice, see The Lehman Trilogy again – from the front stalls rather than from behind the circle – before ‘Dictator’; but it quite often happens that a low priority show is the only one easily available when I’m able to go). I can see why you describe July and August as busy. As well as the pieces mentioned earlier, and the Proms, there is Aristocrats and Allelujah. I’ll probably read your review before deciding on the Bennett piece as the idea of singing and dancing in a play about the NHS doesn’t instantly appeal. Mind you, as I type I’m waiting for confirmation from work that it’s ok to be off on Wednesday so I can travel to Stratford for Miss Littlewood –which is also a musical; and at the ‘wrong’ Stratford!

    *you might have come across this party, which still exists, in your WW1 research. As well as being anti-money the party fervently opposed what it called ‘this thieves quarrel’ in which there were ‘no interests at stake justifying the shedding of a single drop of working class blood’. Unusually (content was normally restricted to material written by party members) the Socialist Standard reproduced Rosa Luxemburg’s condemnation of Karl Kautsky, whom she accused of adopting a ‘workers of the world to unite in peace and slit each other’s throats in war’.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Thanks John. There certainly seem to be many more avenues for discussion around The Lehman Trilogy and I wonder whether some of the NT Platforms might be worth looking into for a more dedicated insights.

      It’s certainly rare to come across a show that can offer debates on economic, social, religious and political history within the content, as well as a chance to think more broadly about how it has been staged and visualised as an artistic creation, making it very memorable.

      We can come back to Imperium if you see Part 2, but as you say there is plenty to divert our attention in the meantime.

  • Hadestown – National Theatre | Cultural Capital

    […] From next Spring, our American cousins can look forward to transfer productions of Ink, Network and The Lehman Trilogy (itself an Italian import) all of which should be unmissable, having already savoured Angels in […]

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