Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 20 October 2018
This show has no right to be so much fun. Over three hours, two intervals, three middle-aged blokes in black suits in a revolving glass Es Devlin set of a city office with a projected cyclorama.No fights, no romance, no rhetoric, no whizz-bang ENRON fun: they just tell the 150-year back-story – usually in that potentially irritating historic present – of one American bank, whose demise and bankruptcy of ten years ago we already know.
So we settled down in sober responsible mood, to be educated in economic history. But we got, as well, some of the best laughs and most stimulating reflections of the year. Sam Mendes took a shine to this play by Stefano Massini in Italy, and Ben Power has done an English adaptation for this premiere.
There’s an obvious wit in airing it during the Trump visit – a story of impoverished immigrants making America economically great. And Mendes has a subtly brilliant cast: Simon Russell Beale as the eldest brother Henry Lehman, Ben Miles as his brother Emanuel, and Adam Godley as the lanky, earnest youngest Mayer, nicknamed “potato”, who came over on a later boat to keep the peace between them.
Ghosts entering the newly deserted office after the 2008 crash, the three simply tell the story, playing themselves, their descendants, and a host of others in brief, sharp, always clear impersonations. It starts in 1844 when Chaim and his suitcase arrive from Bavaria and agree with the immigration officer that OK, he is called Henry. Russell Beale, bluff, twinkling-eyed and bossy, starts a shop in Alabama selling cheap clothes to planters. The three prosper mildly until with a tremendous use of the cyclorama, the great cotton fire wipes out the neighbourhood. “Everything is lost” says one. “On the other hand,” says another with that magnificent diaspora savviness, “everything needs to be re-bought!”
So they work out a credit system, are paid in raw cotton, sell it on to factories up north and explain to baffled outsiders that they are a new thing – “middlemen”. Henry’s death meets the full seven-day shivah with the shop closed and the graveside kaddish (there’s a nice bitter irony, as years pass and each family death gets less power to interrupt trade). A New York office is opened. There’s the civil war. The family evolves as, hilariously or touchingly, each takes roles of wives, small children, sons: Russell Beale and Godley are particularly adept at the skittish hip-thrust and pout and the fractious toddler roar).
By the second part they have become a bank and Wall Street towers are made of the same document-boxes which built the Alabama store. The tightrope-walker in the New York street is ever more of a symbol (obviously, Russell Beale gets to mime him). Soon a child is taught that if they were bakers “our flour is no longer cotton, coffee, steel, coal. Our flour is money!”. Mayer’s son Herbert as a child argues with the aged rabbi (Russell Beale bringing the house down in hysterics) about the plagues of Egypt “Why didn’t HaShem just kill the Pharaoh?” . He leaves the family bank for politics. The railways come. The Panama canal must be funded. Emmanuel’s son Philip is a s wheeler-dealer, his son Bobby – the last of the family in the business, dying in 1969 – buys art and racehorses.
A family tendency to nightmares of failure is vividly evoked: the skill of the three actors – though so frequently dropping into new brief roles – maintains a powerful sense of each personality. The great crash comes; suicides, name by name, a dozen a day listed. The struggle to survive as Lehmans is Bobby’s. You’re on the edge of your seat, both deploring the “money is only numbers” absurdity of growing capitalism, foreseeing today’s crashes, but suffering for the men at its heart. It’s an epic of survival and enterprise and latterly decadence into modern consumer credit , far from the cotton-overalls shop of 1844 “To buy is to exist. Break the barrier of need, buy out of instinct! The new rule is that anyone can buy anything and everything is a bargain” . Moral, intriguing, endlessly entertaining, a fluent masterclass from three of our finest actors. Awed.
nationaltheatre.org.uk to 10 Oct