Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 20 October 2018
The creation, rise and ultimate fall of one of the largest investment firms in the USA might not seem like the most interesting subject matter to embrace for three and a half hours, but with The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre Sam Mendes directs an epic and engrossing tale of three brothers over three centuries, forever foreshadowed by our knowledge of the 2008 financial crash.
The trilogy opens with ‘Part 1: Three Brothers’, with each Lehman brother arriving on the shores of the newly prosperous USA from Rimpar in Germany and settling among the cotton plantations of Montgomery, Alabama. The impeccable Simon Russell Beale plays Henry Lehman, the oldest of the three and the chief decision maker much to the chagrin of second brother Emanuel Lehman (Ben Miles). Adam Godley completes the trio as Mayer Lehman, affectionately (and less affectionately) referred to as ‘the potato’ and the intermediary between his older brothers.
The three narrate the tale and, between them, bring to life the wives, classmates, colleagues and children required to take us through their journey of growth and multiple rebrands thanks to the invention of that ineluctable staple of today’s business world: the middlemen. From cotton to coffee to Wall Street, the three performers are a masterclass in storytelling. Es Devlin’s design, a surprisingly unpretentious square, rotating, glass-laden stage; video backdrop from Luke Halls; and live tinkled ivories played by Candida Caldicot drive the action from light business banter to massive loss.
In ‘Part 2: Fathers & Sons’ the second generation of American Lehmans take the helm, with the scarily strategic Philip (Beale) pushing the business into the industrial age in much the same way he chooses a wife (marks out of 100, obviously, with Godley hilariously embodying each candidate). In this act, the play really embraces its The Big Short– esque style, informing the audience as much as entertaining them, as Philip’s own son (Robert, played suavely by Godley) describes the impending shift of fortune from industry to entertainment at the beginning of the 20th century. This style is further highlighted with the delicate balance of the ever-present but unseen and fictitious tightrope walker Caprinsky as a masterly metaphor, together with the continuous comic candour that Mendes directs so well.
‘Part 3: The Immortal’ sees an interesting female finally but briefly enter the fold with the introduction of the brash Ruth Lamar from Illinois (Beale, charming), who is Bobby Lehman’s wife and partner through the crash of 1929 where Lehman Brothers’ hangs on by the skin of its teeth. The imminent downfall of the company at the beginning of the next century is underscored by the repetitive script, which is as deafening as the quite purposeful shift into consumerism which firmly earns the bank its “evil corporation” crown.
The Lehman Trilogy is an intelligent look behind the scenes of the American Dream and the smoke and mirrors of the corporate world, brought to light by Mendes’ astute direction and a stellar cast. 3.5 hours well spent.
Runs until 20th OctoberReviewed by Heather DeaconPhoto credit: Mark Douet