Writer: Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power
Director: Sam Mendes
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
The fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was one of the seismic events of a financial collapse from which the world has yet to fully recover. But Stefano Massini’s play, first performed in Paris in 2013 and presented here in a new English language adaptation by Ben Power, is less concerned with the company’s fall than the reasons behind how it got so powerful in the first place.
Starting with the arrival in America of 21-year-old Bavarian Jew Hayum Lehmann – whose name is simplified to Henry Lehman upon immigration – Massini’s story follows Henry’s establishment of a fabric shop in Montgomery, Alabama, making rich cotton suits for plantation owners and drab work clothes for the poor and the slaves. Upon the arrival of his brothers Emanuel and Mayer, the brothers begin to expand their business, first stocking supplies and tools for cotton cultivation, but expanding to purchasing raw cotton from multiple plantations and selling it on.
As the Lehman Brothers’ brokerage services expand, Emanuel opens an office in New York. Massini charts the expansion of the business through successive generations of Lehmans – and beyond, as the company moves out of family control. With each successive year, the Lehmans exploit opportunity, from plantation fires to wars, both civil and world.
Throughout the 160-year timespan of the play, all the characters are played by just three men: Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles. This is very much a male-oriented tale: the women whom the brothers and their offspring marry are generally presented as simpering prizes to be acquired as the Lehmans acquire wealth. And while there is nothing on this earth so adorable as Russell Beale playing camp mischief, the reduction of women to objects of ridicule becomes a cloying factor.
Elsewhere, Power’s dialogue – more a series of monologues, with each character predominantly telling their story in the third person – relies on repetition, and almost poetic delivery. The influence of the recitation of Hebrew scripture is in evidence even as, over successive years, the immigrant Lehmans become less observant. The effect is hypnotically charming, the most effective element of the play’s storytelling.
Es Devlin’s design, which frames the entire story in a massive revolving 2008-era glass-panelled office, contrasts well with the 19thcentury frock coats of Katrina Lindsay’s costume designs.
But as the Lehmans themselves fade away from the company they founded, so too does Massini’s interest. Once control passes away to market traders, time spins forward, glossing over the company’s part in the sub-prime mortgage scandal. But with the people of interest gone, and three hours of storytelling already elapsed, that is no bad thing.
Runs until 20 October 2018 | Image: Mark Douet