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FringeReview UK 2018

The Lehman Trilogy

National Theatre, London

Genre: Adaptation, Contemporary, Drama, International, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre, Translation

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Dominik Tiefenhaler’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 accompaniment off-stage left. It’s like a silent movie pianist accompanying those 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, since unlike the top three by this time it had no friends. Its story however might make many, 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.


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 Lehman’s 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.


It’s Philip’s gawky shade-wearing aesthete son Bobby who takes on the 20th century and saves the bank in the 1929 crash. 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 (each played meanwhile 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 the 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 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. It seems the last major players’ unpleasantness and in-fighting had something to do with it. We get a taste as one co-CEO is pushed out by the other; 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 to enact the last scene. Julie playing in the same space also boasts them and it seems a trend; here it’s like a sudden waking out of myth into a spectral reality: waiting for the sword of Damocles, suspended on a single fibre-optic phone-line.


Dynastic parable, the degrading of 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. 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. Probably they’re not laughing here. With luck.