A fascinating multi-generational family epic that sweeps through decades of US economic upheaval is how you could describe Stefano Massini’s play The Lehman Trilogy (NT’s Lyttleton auditorium), directed by Sam Mendes.
On a cold September morning in 1844, a young Jewish immigrant from Bavaria stands on a New York dockside. Dreaming of a new life in the new world, Henry is joined by his two brothers, Emanuel and Meyer, and an American epic begins. As branch upon branch sprouts from the family tree, their business expands and transforms: cotton to coffee, trains to the uninhibited movement of money. Over a century later the firm they establish – Lehman Brothers – collapses into bankruptcy and triggers the largest financial crisis in history.
Presented here in a distilled version by Ben Power, this ambitious epic is split into three sections covering 163 years of history, with live piano accompaniment throughout and consisting of a number of interlinked stories. There’s the immigrant story for one: how America’s openness allowed the Lehmans to live and flourish and then we watch these entrepreneurs expand their business which, at first underpinned by canny judgement and religious faith, gradually mutates into a computer-controlled nightmare.
Sam Mendes’s production has a great sense of rhythm: the deliberately repetitive language suggests the cyclical nature of finance’s grand narratives, and we also see philosophies and mannerisms handed down from one generation to the next. Es Devlin’s rotating design dominated by a glass office, is set against a curving projection of the New York skyline, as we are transported from the plantations of 19th century Alabama via the Great Depression to the shark infested atmosphere of modern Wall Street.
But the production's biggest coup is to have only three actors narrating their own family saga. Clad in black frock coats, they describe scenes and actions without creating them, switching genders and ages to evoke the multiple characters that inhabit the story. Simon Russell Beale starts out as a model of earnest pragmatism as the solid, senior Henry Lehman, but at times turns into a sprightly tightrope-walker, an aged rabbi and a flirty divorcee. As Henry’s nephew, he assesses brides on a points system in a scene that brilliantly demonstrates the limitations of the business ethos. Adam Godley, meanwhile, is equally effective, starting out as Mayer, the patronised youngest of the Lehman siblings and later by donning dark glasses is transformed into the ferociously entrepreneurial Bobbie. In the interim he plays everything from blushing brides to stubborn toddlers. Ben Miles, meanwhile, exudes an authoritative calm as the predatory middle brother Emanuel, but goes on to reveal the rebelliousness of later members of the Lehman clan.
With flair, wit and insight, this absorbing saga of riches and ruin provides an unforgettable cross-section of the roots of capitalism. A five-star triumph from the National!
The Lehman Trilogy
Plays at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton auditorium until Saturday 20 October 2018.
Box office: 020 7452 3000Last modified: July 23, 2018