The Lehman Trilogy ★★★★★
The Lehman Trilogy, presently at the National but sure to transfer to the West End and soon traverse our shores, is altogether terrific. The new play tackles the rise and fall of the American financial system through the prism of three immigrant brothers and their offspring over the span of 160 years. This in a work from Italian playwright Stefano Massini, initially produced in Paris in 2013 and now adapted in spectacular form by an Englishman (Ben Power, deputy artistic director at the National) in collaboration with theatrical wizard Sam Mendes. Not an American in sight, other than the immigrant Lehman Brothers. But this melting pot of a creative team has chronicled the American experience in breathtakingly vibrant form.
A tale of such comprehensive scope requires dozens of characters as well as an array of settings as the story progresses from the dusty streets of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1844 to the sky-top aeries of Wall Street, 2008. (The “trilogy” in the title refers to the three distinct parts of the play, “Three Brothers,” “Fathers & Sons,” and “The Immortal.” While this is indeed a trilogy, Lehman is performed as a single, three-and-a-half hour play—and it moves as swiftly as quicksilver.)
What makes the play so fascinating—or at least one of the elements that makes the play so fascinating—is the method. With character, plot, and finance enveloping your fascination, you gradually realize that all of these characters are being performed by a cast of only three protean actors.
Eldest brother Henry (Simon Russell Beale) starts the chronicle as an all-but-penniless Bavarian refugee, arriving in the fascinating metropolis of New York in the post-Jacksonian era. He quickly sets up shop in Montgomery as a decidedly foreign peddler of fabric. Joined by younger/stronger brother Emanuel (Ben Miles) and youngest/charmingest brother Mayer (Adam Godley), they quickly learn that they will do better by buying up local raw cotton and selling it to the Northern manufacturers. This is a boon for plantation owners, who get paid for their cotton up front—via loans from the Lehmans—rather than having to wait until harvest time for their money.
The major innovation, for the brothers, is the notion that they can earn a fortune by peddling a product that they neither grow, process, manufacture, or even need touch: A concept that they, or at least the Messrs. Massini and Power, call “middlemen.” The Lehmans soon tie up a large portion of the Alabama cotton trade, opening a New York office from which they can transact business on a nationwide scale. With the Civil War critically damaging the cotton trade, they turn to coffee, which earns them a new fortune; and banking, which—well, you know what happens.
Part 2 shows how the fathers lose control to their sons: Philip (Beale), the brilliant engineer of the firm’s ascension to the top of the finance world, and Herbert (Miles), the idealistic outsider who spent nine years as governor of New York and ended his career in the U.S. Senate. Part 3 shows how the all-powerful Lehman Brothers firm—under direction from afar by childless grandson Robert “Bobby” (Godley), a playboy philanthropist dandy—falls into the hands of non-Lehmans, who open the doors to the investment banking tangle that results not only in the firm’s bankruptcy but the ensuing global financial crisis.
While the play is performed almost entirely by the Beale, Miles, and Godley, this is in no sense an intimate production. Mendes, the founding director of the Donmar Warehouse whose credits include the internationally successful revival of Cabaret, the motion picture American Beauty, and the soon-to-arrive Ferryman, works on an abundantly large scale here. His staging concept—exceptionally visualized by designer Es Devlin—places the action on a massive, square, glass-and-steel turntable set against the skyscrapers of Manhattan (even as Henry Lehman arrives as a refugee in 1844). The playing area is divided between a large boardroom, a small storage area that also serves as the Alabama storefront, and a living area. The walls are glass, with the actors dutifully writing key words and numbers on the clear-glass walls with black marker until by evening’s end the annotations make quite a mosaic.
Add in helpful and ultimately (purposefully) overwhelming video projections by Luke Halls (who worked with Devlin on the Royal Court’s Girls & Boys, recently seen in New York); pinpoint lighting by Jon Clark; and music and sound from Nick Powell, and you end up with a three-actor play that looks, feels, and resonates like a super-scaled evening. This is not to minimize the work of costume designer Katrina Lindsay; she has little to provide other than the “funeral” suits for the brothers, although these are indeed highly versatile funeral suits that at times seem magically transformed to crinoline and taffeta.
It is impossible to overestimate the contributions of the cast (each of whom, apparently, participated in preliminary work sessions as Power and Mendes “built” the script). Beale’s dramatic abilities are well known; here he slips from founding patriarch to Southern cocotte to mewling infant with astounding grace, especially since he remains in his funeral suit and looks something like an acorn. Miles, recently on our shores as Thomas Cromwell at the center of Wolf Hall, is impressive as the Lehman-in-the-middle, strong and handsome but neither as wise nor clever as his brothers. Godley, with ears that seem to extend wall-to-wall, is as crafty and versatile as Beale. (He is recognizable to Broadway theatergoers as Lord Evelyn in the 2011 revival of Anything Goes, for which he received a Tony nomination.) With these three on stage, it turns out, we don’t really need any other actors. They are assisted by an omnipresent pianist, music director Candida Caldicot, ever visible on the side of the stage. And what a keen theatrical concept that turns out to be.
U.S. audiences will simply have to wait for the opportunity to see The Lehman Trilogy; British audiences, too, as tickets for the National run are impossible to come by. But it is an astounding delineation of the American experience, and not to be missed.
The Lehman Trilogy opened July 12, 2018, at the Lyttelton Theatre (London) and runs through October 20. Tickets and information: nationaltheatre.org.uk