Head to the National Theatre for Sam Mendes-directed The Lehman Trilogy, an epic night to remember about one of capitalism’s darkest moments that we should all find time for, writes Laura Plumley
The ghosts of the past rise up and are ever present in the modernistic set of Sam Mendes’ new production of The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre. Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale) appears in black frock coat, black shoes, carrying one shabby suitcase among the monochromatic open plan office setting of 2008. And so begins their story.
Stefano Massini’s play documents the rise and fall of the Lehman brothers and has been skillfully adapted by Ben Power in this epic. From the moment of arrival of the first Lehman brother in America, to the moment of collapse of the global conglomerate at the end of the three and a half hour play, we are manoeuvred through the lives, hopes, dreams and negotiations of the Lehman clan.
This adaptation of ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ covers 164 years, from New York on 11th September 1844, and runs through the expansion of the family run business over three generations into a multinational corporation. Here, we are worlds away from the small shop set up in Montgomery, Alabama at the beginning of their story. At the core of this piece are the desire and the will to survive, adapt and flourish in a new environment. The family’s Jewish roots are key to the narrative, with the original Lehman brothers strictly observing Jewish traditions. However, with the expansion of the business and the passing of the generations, many changes occur: old traditions fade, family values change, and money and business expansion seem to become their new faith.
Numerous characters appear in this play – the three Lehman generations, and many other subsidiary characters, male and female, from a screaming two-year-old to a decrepit-yet still dancing Bobbie Lehman, the last family member in the bank. In other productions of this play, this breadth of characters has meant that the cast has been large, but here are just three actors in this production. The superlative trio, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles, masterfully metamorphose into staggeringly different characters with ease and conviction, often bringing humour to the play. Russell Beale is particularly convincing as the flirty and girlish wives of Philip and then Bobbie Lehman, as well as depicting the doddering rabbi, supposedly tutoring the later generations of Lehman boys and being persistently challenged by the self-righteous Herbert Lehman, played by Miles.
The scarcity of cast members contrasts with the complexity of the play’s narrative. The contrast is maintained by the set, designed by award winning Es Devlin. The action is contained within a large, rotating glass box, divided into three parts and filled with storage boxes, chairs and a large boardroom table. Even when the play begins in 1844, this modern setting is still used as we are made to imagine Henry Lehman walking the streets of New York. Our imagination is aided by the huge video projection curving round the back of the stage, showing the New York skyline of the 1800s. Projection, designed by Luke Halls, is cleverly used throughout to enhance the performance. Videos of the sea, of both present and past New York, of burning Alabama and of the more abstract washes of colour make scene changes unnecessary. One projection which works particularly well is that of high-rise office blocks which begin to whirl round the curve of the screen creating the illusion that we and the action on stage are spinning faster and faster.
The idea of the merging of the company’s Victorian past with its present is developed by the accumulation of writing on the glass walls. As the characters write more on the walls – signs for the Lehman brothers’ shop change with time, the numbers of men killed in the American Civil War and key words from board meetings, the history of the firm and the family – all are made visual. This serves as a reminder of what the family and company has endured to reach its later stages, and perhaps makes the collapse more poignant. The hopes and dreams of the original Lehman brothers and the sweat, tears and hard work throughout the generations have all come crashing down.
An epic like this is surely something of an endurance test for the audience and actors alike, but the effort is well rewarded, just like the bankers depicted.
Laura Plumley writes for Spear’s