Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 20 October 2018
At a time when Lady Liberty’s message was actually heeded, when the USA lifted the lamp to its golden door and welcomed all that immigrants could bring, three German Jewish brothers made the journey from Bavaria in the 1840s and set up shop in Montgomery, Alabama. From selling cotton cloth to brokering cotton sales to diversifying into other markets, other cities, they built up their family business into a financial services behemoth, the very embodiment of the American Dream. The name of that firm – Lehman Brothers…
Thus The Lehman Trilogy is a tale of boom to bust. Stefano Massini’s epic play, adapted here by Ben Power in a National Theatre and Neal Street Productions co-production, takes a generational viewpoint to move us through 170 years of American history and three generations of Lehman men. And in the hands of Simon Russell Beale (Henry), Ben Miles (Emanuel) and Adam Godley (Mayer), they could scarcely be better in Sam Mendes’ sleekly poised and pacey production. Not only do they play the brothers, their son and their grandsons, they cover all the other roles as they narrate their own story – it truly is an acting tour-de-force.
And its a fascinating slice of history too, the growth of an utterly capitalist mindset viewed through a uniquely personal lens. The depth of sacrifice necessary to be ‘successful’ never more obvious than in the whittling away of their Jewish traditions and cultural identities; never more painfully fruitless than in the face of the global financial crisis that we know is to come. This personal focus does ultimately give a sense that Massini is a little in awe of the brothers, seduced by the self-made success storyline whilst never truly indicting them for the results of their ruthlessness.
It is hard to complain though when three actors of this calibre are being licensed to play just so damn entertainingly. Russell Beale naturally steals the limelight with his female characters and the surprisingly accuracy of his piano ‘playing’ ( I swear his Bach Prelude was note-perfect even without a keyboard). Es Devlin’s swirling cube is a design masterpiece with its glass walls denoting barely-there partitions, and Luke Halls’ panoramic video work is stunning. It may be overwhelmingly male and pale (a stubbornly enduring problem it would seem) but it is so far from stale – a thrilling production.