Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2019

The Lehman Trilogy

NT Live, National Theatre, London and Neal Street Productions

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, European Theatre, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Storytelling, Theatre, Translation

Venue: NT Live Piccadilly Theatre, London


Low Down

Directed by Sam Mendes Ben Power adapts Stefano Massini’s 2013 parable of capitalism The Lehman Trilogy with its huge cast shrunk to three multi-roling actors. Es Devlin seems to pick up on the last of the opening scene’s words ‘the magic music box of America’ as he creates a glass one on a revolve. Jon Clark’s lighting is chiaroscuro whenever Luke Halls’ video panorama plays. Nick Powell’s sound is often at the service of Candida Candicott’s piano accompaniment off-stage left.


For the Broadcast Team Matthew Amos leads screen directing with technical producer Christopher C Bretnall to prove the revolving cube-and-video set turns even more cinematic and removed: its nature means less intimate angles. There’s discreet close-up, seamless framing, often a solid stalls-eye view. Conrad Fletcher’s sound ensures there’s a greater crump in cinemas than the original. Gemma O’Sullivan’s lighting projects the same theatrical light density from Jon Clark’s design.


Cabin’d cribb’d but hardly confined. Forcing Stefano Massini’s 2013 The Lehman Trilogy with its huge cast to three multi-roling actors Ben Power more than adapts this astonishing parable of capitalism. He personalizes it, tracing a DNA with members of the Lehman dynasty standing in for a notch on the way from an 1840s Alabama store with bolts of cloth evoked, to the 2008 crash where the name ‘Lehman’ remains wrecked. Transferring from the NT Lyttelton, it now runs at Piccadilly Theatre over a month after after this NT Live broadcast.


A long way from Henry the founder’s ‘Nothing flashy, In Alabama, you don’t work to live. You live to work.’ Each shift from physical commodity to credit then the creation of the stock exchange and fantasy finance is mapped on a character’s face, like unnerving incarnations of the three founding fathers. Or as if like Joe Hill they’ve never died.


And when the last active Lehman, rapacious aesthete Bobby dies in 1969, Power and Massini feel the family’s trace element exhaust itself too; the end’s a bit concertina’d. With no text available you wonder if Power might extend this three hours and twenty minutes. Director Sam Mendes navigates with a kind of searing panache. Seeing it again, a few questions arise.


It’s a thrilling spectacle though, seductive, often oddly touching. Es Devlin picks up on the last of the opening scene’s words ‘the magic music box of America’ as he creates a glass one on a revolve: a sectioned skyscraper inside which a modern office stacked with boxes as September 2008 announces the imminent death-knell of Lehman Brothers. Why? A fairy-tale, it doesn’t apologize or explain.


Rows of square lights on a graphite ceiling drench us for the most part in Jon Clark’s visionary neon – and chiaroscuro whenever Luke Halls’ evocative video panorama wrap curls storm clouds, period skylines or Alabama fires, in black and white epic mode. Chairs, pcs, desks, above all cardboard boxes with personal effects are stacked by Ravi Aujla’s Janitor. They’re sometimes an 1840s store in one corner, sometimes a nightmare of boxes crashing as three characters suffer prophetic dreams. One (Emmanuel) has it about trains, and another about everything spinning round, effectively Armageddon. The glass walls get written on as shop signs go up, sums are computed; a light-jewelled question-mark hangs on each.


Nick Powell’s sound is often at the service of Candida Candicott’s piano off-stage left: a silent movie pianist accompanying black-and-white images, music rich in minimalist panache and sly pickings-out of a child’s halting piano practice. The effect’s at once intimate and vast.


Lehman’s, the U. S.’s fourth largest bank, was made an example of in 2008, since unlike the top three by this time it had no friends: all the Lehman family had gone. Lehman’s had done just that in 1929, refusing to save other banks to encourage the government they were worth saving. Massini and Power make that point superbly, but – bafflingly – not the key parallel in 2008. You have to go to the biography for it.


Lehman’s story however might make many friends, with ethical heroes en route. Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley stand in as the three brothers and their progeny – opening with Beale’s alighting from a German ship in 1844: newly-seasoned, twenty-two, ambitious. If for nothing else, this production would be remembered for its outstanding trio of performances. But everything performs here.


Beale keenly spying out the future is an iconic joke with truth: except for a New York backdrop with the statue of Liberty prematurely perched (not for another forty-two years). There’s the Anglicising of German-Jewish names so ‘Hayem’ becomes ‘Henry’ and a swift move to a ‘dry-store’ of cloths then cotton in Montgomery, Alabama. Joined by both brothers Henry buys raw cotton direct from plantations, becoming as they coin it ‘middlemen’ selling on eventually to New York, and from 1858 shifting operations there.


Beale’s Henry ‘who was always right’ doesn’t make it this far, dying of yellow fever in November 1855, just thirty-three. At the passing of each brother and the first of the next generation an ever-shortening ritual of sitting shiva gets observed, then truncated as the family moves from observance into bleak modernity. Again its punctuation humanizes, acts as portent. Massini, as Power points out, ‘utilises his own background in the Jewish faith’ and it’s a masterstroke: ‘a family and a country losing its faith.’


Beale inevitably relishes Henry’s Leopard-like role, seraphically pronouncing, tardily taking on Emmanuel as a near-equal who in turn doesn’t accept Mayer till the latter saves the business. Henry’s the head, Emmanuel the arm, Mayer…. the potato. It’s engaging, fraternal, a band of immigrant brothers bent on a profit that benefits those around them, save that one thing edged around this play: slaves.


If Henry’s the ghost in the great financial machine it’s Miles’ Emmanuel who’s the grand visionary, always visiting cotton mills, factories and New York, whereas Mayer – the only one who didn’t have to Anglicise his name – is the great fixer, working miracles of compromise and local initiative. The potato woos quickly, persuades with a personal touch, thinks brilliantly on his potato-head, though doesn’t feel like the complete shift Emmanuel envisions. Godley goofs about as a man who jokes others into his seriousness. You believe he engages everyone and Godley imitates nearly everyone as Beale plays off him as one more seduced paterfamilias.


Then there’s the first great disaster the Lehmans weather, the Civil War, Mayer caught out on the wrong side but that toehold in New York saving them. Despite the implications you’re seduced too into rooting for Mayer’s inspired gambits with barter and advancing capital as Godley leaps about, plantation fires dancing in the background.


It could have fetched up there. But Emmanuel moves them out of cotton, becoming the great borrower and reconstructor of Alabama, then coffee and – reluctantly – railroad investor. Miles conveys a man awkward in relaxing, suddenly rapt, glint-edged and lucent when gripped by his vision of metaphysical trading, where you don’t touch a shovel.


The shift towards enterprise and investment seems inexorable too, etched in believable characters. Massini and Power trace these two branches with a flickering light on how they’ll clash. So Emmanuel’s son Philip (Beale again) is the implacable creator of money chasing money, investing in huge schemes beyond even his father’s scope. Indeed he shoves his father ‘with the deepest respect I take my leave’ out of the running. Touch a shovel? No wonder there’s a man in the air, on a tightrope for fifty years. Keep watching him.


It’s Philip’s gawky shade-wearing aesthete son Bobby who takes on the 20th century and saves the bank in the 1929 crash, ruthlessly cutting lesser banks loose to convince the government to save them. And pronounces the same dismissal on Philip. Philip only sees ‘a giant monkey’. King Kong and Pan-Am are beyond Philip. Bobby’s legacy is still a massive MOMA wing of donated artworks. Godley gleefully contrasts Bobby to his increasingly otherworldly Mayer.


But there’s Beale, wickedly playing Ruth a divorcee who sets her considerable cap at Bobby at a horse-race as stock-market horse-traders are shooting themselves (all eleven etched by Miles). Godley’s Bobby is oblivious to this as Beale’s flirty then flinty. It’s one of several beautifully-counterpointed moments that make this so exhilarating – and a more than guilty pleasure.


It’s Mayer’s son Herbert – again Miles – who emerges as hero even today. ‘Grabbing and greed can go on for just so long. But the breaking point is bound to come sometime.’ Miles plays this as an adamantine pillar, inexorably denouncing his birthright. The great Jeremiah of banking, Herbert left Lehman’s to become a left-leaning Liberal Governor of New York and Liberal Senator, Roosevelt’s left-hand man trying to curtail the power of banks. His father Mayer had taken him to poor hospitals every Sunday when young; hospitals Mayer himself funds.


Greed accelerant always ends in a fire sale; here everything’s consumed as the last of the three parts races through Bobby’s era. Perhaps Power feels further talk of derivatives might cause this drama to pall; certainly sheer informational brio becomes ever more abstracted, particularly one early stretch of the third part. Godley’s Bobby anchors the narrative for as long as he’s around and there’s a speed-read of two final major characters and politics of the last forty years. Neatly they’re brought in as children during the Depression.


Bobby’s legacy might have included a trading arm; but its dizzying computer-jargon is literally another planet at a time of moon landings, as another Lehman generation’s finally outpaced. It opens up fractional reserve banking and fantasy indexes. Lehman’s lost because – unlike other banks – it was two wholly different operations, presided over not by a new Lehman, but tyros at war. The trace element of mercantile genius is finally run out, an exhausted vein of gold.


Many banks were involved in sub-prime mortgages taken out by those who’d never afford them. Those two last players’ in-fighting proved fatal. We get a taste as the President’s pushed out by the Trading-arm chief; a blink earlier they’d been cavorting boys as their fathers strained to listen to the crash on shaky wirelesses.


And we’re back with a sudden flurry of twenty-two calm supernumeraries. A waking out of myth into spectral reality: the sword of Damocles suspends on a single fibre-optic phone-line.


Dynastic parable, degrading the original American Dream – one of equality Mayer and Herbert envisaged; the diminution of a proud Jewish observance with charity at its core: The Lehman Trilogy is all these. You take it all in; seeing it again you select: Act Two’s climax and the finale is the sum of conventional drama. Some dislike the constant piano and lack of dramatic shape. I’m still hooked though recognize these strictures.


It’s almost stupefying too, though never preachy or weighted like David Hare’s verbatim The Power of Yes. But it’s outstanding in a way different to Lucy Prebble’s Enron, and that blisteringly-versed standard of financial cautionary tales, Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money. That had financiers queuing to see themselves abused and laughing at its slight exaggerations. They’re not laughing here. With luck.