Tuesday 31 July 2018

The Lehman Trilogy

National Theatre, Lyttelton
28th July, 2018, matinee

He left with only an idea of America in his mind.
He arrived with it there in front of him

Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy (2013) has made it to the National Theatre, in a translation by Deputy Artistic Director Ben Power and in a starry production, after previously being well received in different productions in Paris and Milan. It’s a history – his-story – play, chronicling Lehman Brothers, from an Alabama fabric store ran by three German immigrant brothers, to the globally renowned (and now vilified) stock brokers.

But although this is directed by Hollywood heavyweight Sam Mendes, The Lehman Trilogy doesn’t have much cinematic quality. It doesn’t arouse the boardroom sharks of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011), nor does it glorify the lives of bankers as in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). It doesn’t really reach the heights of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (1987) at portraying the thrill of the trading floor. And considering the whole play is basically mansplaining, it falls short of the audacious bravura of Adam McKay and Charles Randolph’s The Big Short (2015). It’s more a play about immigrants’ tenacity to make something of their lives, the family’s continued effort to make more money, and how the ceiling of ambition rises with each new generation.

Es Devlin’s set and Luke Halls’ video design keep the production moving. The skyscraper office with floor to ceiling windows spins to match the play’s pace; the minimalist offices become stores and houses from state to state; grey cardboard storage boxes become shop counters and stairs. But this playfulness is conservative, leaving me now wondering what James Graham or Headlong would’ve done with the idea. Mendes firmly keeps his eye on the story, and it is a fascinating story, it’s more that Massini’s script occasionally feels rushed and lacking its own definite sense of identity.

I am also unconvinced by the play’s structure. It’s neatly satisfying that the Trilogy of the title refers to the three founding Lehman brothers as well as its three parts. But these three parts – Three Brothers, Fathers and Sons, The Immortal – don’t feel distinguishable enough to be considered as making up a triptych. Ben Power has provided a sturdy translation but I’m still a bit cynical. For example, the play is excellently underscored by Candida Caldicot on the piano (music by Nick Powell). Just as Powell’s musical phrases are made up occasional repetition, concordant notes and leitmotifs, Powell continuously returns to lines in his script. Here is a smattering of those which stand out:

The brain         the arm           the potato
The ticking clock was deafening
The yellow and black sign and the slightly stiff door handle
Henry is always right

I think it’s harsh but not disingenuous of me to say that I think these merely give it the illusion of structural strength, something to stop it completely being a rambling yarn of 160 years.

Although I don’t feel it was a massively rewarding *shivers* piece of theatre, it is enjoyable while it lasts, mainly because of the assured direction and performances. Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley have fun showboating their top acting skills. All three of them, as well as playing the original Lehman brothers and their descendants, take on the roles of supporting characters: crying children and would-be wives, southern plantation owners and New York tycoons. Best of all is Godley; his rubbery face and dynamic performance leaves a memorable impression, as he goes from the more tentative mediator ‘potato’ brother Mayer to the more forward-thinking, disco-loving, elderly final Lehman to be involved in the business. Elsewhere, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be one of the supernumeraries who don’t appear until the play’s dying moments, probably thinking of how quickly they can get to Waterloo as much as they are about life after the 2008 financial crisis.

In the bigger picture, this may be a play about family and the seed of the American Dream. When we visited Liberty and Ellis Islands earlier this year, it was hard not to be impressed by the clustered verticality of Manhattan. Like America promises so much to Henry Lehman when he stands on the dock side, this play promised so much as well. *Insert neat phrase in the semantic field of stocks and shares here*.

The Lehman Trilogy plays at the National Theatre until 20th October.
Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley in The Lehman Trilogy. Credit: Marc Douet

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