National Theatre (Lyttelton), London – until 20 October 2018
The financial crash of 2008 has much to answer for, I think. Top of the list? Brexit and President Trump. One thing it has yet to really produce though, for my money (pun intended), is any really great theatre. Or perhaps I should qualify that statement: no really great theatre in English.
Because it turns out the great 2008 play I was waiting for had in fact been written – in Italian, by Stefano Massini. The play has also been seen in French and German. And now, finally, in English: adapted by Ben Power, The Lehman Trilogy is currently playing at the Lyttelton in the NT.
First of all, it’s worth saying that I’m being slightly disingenuous calling it a play about the 2008 crash. Because, although that’s where the play starts and ends, it’s very much not what it’s about. Perhaps the best way to explain it is this: it’s a play about the Lehman brothers, not Lehman Brothers. It’s a story, therefore, that I’m guessing 99% of the audience don’t know, instead of one that 99% of them do. I found it an absolutely fascinating story, or part of a story, and I love Massini for picking out this bit.
Also, I love him and Ben Power for the fact that The Lehman Trilogy is just a bloody fantastic piece of writing: gripping, funny, tender, superbly well observed, immaculately researched and a story brilliantly told. Structurally, it’s super interesting too. As Power notes in his programme essay, it’s almost more of a poem than a play – there’s a lot of repetition, a lot of rhetorical flourishes, clear line by line structure – and feels as close to the Ancient Greek tradition as the modern European.
Practically, what this means is the actors have two roles: talking about their characters’ stories in the third person (but in character) and telling the story as their character in the first person as well. Sounds a bit wanky, but it really works. Once you get your ear into it, it’s a really engrossing way of telling the story. As is the fact that, the bookending, silent 2008 scenes aside, this play is a three hander with the same three actors playing the three brothers, their wives, business partners and children. Again, it sounds a bit GCSE drama final project but, again, it totally works.
I think one of the reasons why it works is because it draws out one of the key themes of the play: family, and specifically the way family history impacts on your identity. It’s no accident that the play ends before the 2008 crash – because at that point the bank was no longer family owned. It wasn’t really Lehman Brothers anymore. Identity is picked up in other ways too, national identity (the way America fell out of love with the glamour and power of the big banks – or perhaps vice versa) and the role of immigration in forming personal and national identity. There’s some really touching material about the declining importance of the family’s European Jewishness, both in the way they observe their religious traditions and in the way they interact with American society more broadly. And, in current circumstances, it’s hard not to see the play as a timely corrective on the role and benefits of immigration. I mean, how amazing is it that three Jewish immigrants can rock up in America, set up a rural store in the Deep South and end up running America’s biggest bank in pretty much a single generation? Stick that on your stupid wall and smoke it.
The NT’s production is directed by Sam Mendes so I probably don’t need to say too much more about the standard of it. Mendes has a very clear vision of the story and how to tell it that he delivers with conviction, verve and – thankfully – pace. This is a long old play (almost three and a half hours, two intervals) but it utterly flies by. Es Devlin’s set is ingenious, using the three rooms of the 2008 glass walled office to tell the entire story. The use of the revolve is great, as is the use of filing boxes (no, really). If I’m being picky, I would only say it would help if the roof of the set were glass as well as the walls to marginally improve the otherwise excellent sight lines from the very top of the auditorium. Luke Halls’ video design is amazing, and never better than the dizzying act three sequences that literally come with a health warning. This is a real piece of class from the NT as well as an achievement of considerable theatrical magic.
The class and magic continue into the cast; a relief given that the wrong three actors could absolutely destroy this play. It’s a demanding thing for all of them. Each of the three has multiple parts of varying ages, genders, accents, backgrounds and nationalities. There are no costume changes, bar the occasional addition of a hat or pair of glasses, so the onus is on them to deliver a cast of recognisable, and recognisably different, characters through sheer skill. The three actors cast in this production – Adam Godley, Ben Miles and Simon Russell Beale – are, it almost goes without saying, perfect. It’s an absolute thrill to watch them from a purely technical point of view, when the storytelling is added on top it’s just a gift. I don’t even need to tell you that Simon Russell Beale is excellent because when is he not? He’s on electric form here and having so much fun as the actor with the greatest variety of parts (because his Lehman brother dies first), several of them women who he plays magnificently. Ben Miles, who I just adore in everything, is commanding and charismatic. I found it difficult to tear my eyes off him, especially during the dance section. Dude has moves (and a great beard). Adam Godley brings quiet depth and exuberant fun to his roles. He seems to get the bulk of the child and infant roles and is implausibly good at them. It is, in short, an absolute master class in versatility as an actor. An utter joy to watch.
There’s only one problem with The Lehman Trilogy. It’s a brilliant play, a brilliant production and the best cast anywhere in London at the moment, but it’s also sold out. Yeah, sorry about that. However, this is worth the faff of trying to get day tickets or returns; not something I say often. Keep an eye on the NT’s social feeds for the least bothersome version, their excellent Friday Rush scheme
The Lehman Trilogy is in the Lytellton at the NT (in rep) until 20th October.
My seat for this one was J20 in the circle. I paid £34 for the privilege (a rare sincere use of ‘privilege’ from me there).