The Lehman Trilogy at the National: spectacular, elegant perfection

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley play a whole host of men, women, babies and a range of races at lightening pace in this theatrical triumph.

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The entertainment industry invested quickly in the bankruptcy of America’s fourth-largest investment bank during the 2008 financial crash: a TV play, The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, was followed in quick succession by two movies: Too Big to Fail and Margin Call.

However, while British theatre has waited until the tenth anniversary of the events to buy into The Lehman Trilogy, a 2013 Italian sequence of plays, the dividends prove huge. The delay doesn’t matter, because Stefano Massini’s scripts (adapted for the National by Ben Power) divest so far from the drama-doc style of the rapid-response films. Three hours cover a century and a half, from German immigrant Chaim Lehman’s 1844 arrival in America, to the images of traders leaving the New York HQ cradling packing boxes: the badge of the suddenly jobless. And yet there are only three speaking actors.

The programme cast list tells us that Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley are playing respectively Henry (as Chaim was renamed by US immigration), Emanuel and Mayer Lehman, the brothers after whom the company was named. Those, though, are only their opening bids.

In what is presumably a temporary suspension of the National’s commitment to diverse casting, the three actors play not only successive Lehman generations but also assorted other men, women, babies and a range of races.

Godley, with lightning changes of posture and voice, suggests within a minute eight different women who are rival potential wives for Russell Beale’s Philip Lehman. Miles suddenly flops his head on Godley’s knee to become the two-year-old Herbert Lehman, then plays the same character from nine to 85, but also convincingly embodies Lew Glucksman, the Hungarian who led the company away from family ownership and traditional banking.

Russell Beale brilliantly becomes in turn a centenarian rabbi, a libidinous divorcee and, in a remarkable individual trilogy, a slave, a slave-owner and the governor of Alabama. In acting terms, it’s as if the Three Tenors were required to switch, at a whistle, between opera, hip-hop and yodelling. End-of-year theatre awards may need to be divided into three.

These multiverse performances reflect both the dynastic drive of the business – with each Lehman emerging from inside another – and the underlying theme of reinvention. The family firm expanded and adapted from a small store selling fabric, through cotton – pioneering the concept of a “middleman” between grower and manufacturer – trains, and then coffee, becoming in the process first a lending bank, then an investment one and finally a trading house.

The progress from dealing in products to swapping intangibilities (which proves ruinous) recalls Lucy Prebble’s 2009 play Enron, although Massini editorialises less, generally preferring to tell rather than tell off. Showing how the Lehmans successively monetised catastrophes – burned-down plantations, world wars, the Wall Street Crash, nuclear tension – he leaves the viewer to decide whether that is business as usual or the unacceptable face of capitalism.

A more questionable omission is that, while the Jewish heritage of the family is strongly depicted, the Lehmans never suffer any explicit anti-Semitism, although prejudice was surely part of the story. Perhaps surprisingly, in that respect, the English adaptation includes a rather iffy joke about Jewish thrift (one brother is shown recycling the same bunch of flowers for numerous suitors) that wouldn’t get into a sitcom nowadays.

The boldness of the play is the disparity between epic narrative and chamber shape, which Sam Mendes’s staging and Es Devlin’s design honour by making a three-actor piece work, with spectacular elegance, on the Lyttelton Theatre’s large stage.

The production seems inspired by a line in the text when Chaim, just off the ship, describes New York as a “magical music box”. The set is a colossal, revolving opaque cube, and the performance is underscored by live piano. Behind, on a curved cyclorama that fills the stage, an exquisite black-and-white video design by Luke Halls depicts waves, flames, cotton fields – and the clouds in which the Lehmans’ sky-scraping boardroom sits.

Having marshalled 23 actors during a single scene of his last British production, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, Mendes achieves equally elegant perfection with a trio. The effect is a sort of maxi-minimalism. Those who pay £15-£67 for a ticket will never get their investment back, but will share in acting, direction and design of the highest worth. 

The Lehman Trilogy runs until 20 October

The Lehman Trilogy
Stefano Massini
National Theatre, London SE1

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact