Writer: Stefano Massini
Adaptor: Ben Power
Director: Sam Mendes
Reviewer: Gus Mitchell
In the words of Charles Prince, former chief executive of Citigroup: ‘As long as the music is playing, you have to get up and dance’. At one point during Stefano Massini’s giant The Lehman Trilogy, this hypnotic and strangely nihilistic is literally enacted, in a sequence that is both hilarious and terrifying. Hilarious, terrifying, hypnotic, sometimes frustrating and much more if The Lehman Trilogy leaves you bored, you lack imagination.
Back in London following runs at London’s National Theatre and in New York, Massini’s play, adapted in English by Ben Power, follows the fortunes of the financial family firm Lehman Brothers and their multi-century rise from humble cotton brokers in pre-Civil War Alabama to a contemporary multinational corporation at the precipice in the 2008 financial crash. Founded by a trio of Jewish-German brothers from Rimpah, Bavaria, just one of millions of hopeful 19thcentury immigrants to the land of dreams and opportunity, the firm, its expansions, mutations, and eventual death, tell an emblematic story of capitalism in America over two centuries.
Director Sam Mendes decision to pare down a cast of over 70 characters, spanning states and centuries, to just three, is one of essential brilliance, for these are three entrancingly powerful performers. Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley centrally play Henry, Emanuel and Mayer respectively, but shed their original characters as death and the march of scenes dictate; Russell Beale, for instance, glides into the role of a courted Southern belle just minutes after shuffling off the mortal coil of Henry Lehman. The energy, intelligence and command these totally synergistic performances summon up through a three-and-a-half-hour performance is a wondrous feat of pure theatre and the powers of genuine storytelling.
Their intelligence in exploiting what could look like a limited set-up extends to set, lights, use of props and all manner of theatrical tricks. Es Devlin’s set is a marvel: a sleek corporate boardroom faces us, until a rotation shows us two adjoining offices. It is clearly Lehman Brothers 2008 – an anonymous space that miraculously manages to contain within it the action of 200 years of American and Lehman history. The Lehman trio use the many scattered file boxes and office furniture to ingenious, time-traveling effect.
Jon Clark’s lighting gives added voice to particular themes and moments when it needs to but otherwise glides seamlessly just under your consciousness, and so similarly does the piano playing of Candida Caldicot, who sits perched at an upright below the stage, providing musical accompaniments superbly tightly bound to the fabric of the writing, sometimes to wonderfully comic and sometimes to humming ambient effect. The cyclorama video designs behind the glass walls of the set, the work of video designer Luke Halls, are also essential to elaborating on the play’s fluid treatment of history, with dreamscape illustrations of skylines, burning Civil War cottonfields, the vivid nightmares of the individual Lehman brothers which often end up guiding affect the course of American capitalism.
In short, the production is a piece of magic to surrender to, and a supreme feat of storytelling. Needless to say, Stefano Massini and Ben Power’s writing are often hugely commendable. Power has called Massini’s work ‘Homeric’ in its scope and devices, and indeed the use of repetitions and repeated metaphors do reflect this. There are moments of great poetic beauty and terrifying insight.
However, the sense of disappointment at the conclusion of the third and final part of the production was quite strong. The story (perhaps appropriately) ends with the death of the last direct Lehman descendant and does not at all narratively address the 2008 financial crash which caused the bank’s demise. It is difficult to know whether this was the fault of Massini or his adaptor, who cut around two hours from the original Italian play. There are other disappointing features of the script it is often difficult to pinpoint and will probably shift depending on your ideological stance. First and foremost, however, The Lehman Trilogy should be seen as a piece of theatre and storytelling that is immersive in the best, oldest sense of the word.
Runs until 31 August 2019 | Image: Mark Douet