National Theatre (Lyttelton), London – until 20 October 2018
Stefano Massini’s work about the origins of Lehman Brothers Bank is a domestic epic and a remarkable evening of theatre. Over three and a half hours, three actors take us from a clothing store founded in the 1840s in Montgomery, Alabama to the moment when a phone rings in Lehman Brothers Manhattan office on 13 October 2008, confirming bankruptcy. The role of Lehman’s in the 2008 financial crisis is well-known, but Massini’s play is about everything else – the 150 years of changing business practice leading to that point. It is rich and complex, full of drama and staged with sometimes breathtaking confidence. If any production can still justify all-male casting, it is this.
All the action takes place in a glass-walled 21st-century office, acted out on a boardroom table using the archive boxes familiar from television footage of employees trooping out of offices, carrying their belongings. The plays are many things at once: a family saga, a history of immigration in America, an analysis of changing ideas of business and goods, both financial and moral.
Haim arrives in Baltimore from Bavaria, wearing the shoes he has saved for America and becoming Henry at customs, and makes a living selling things people need – first clothes, then seeds for the cotton farmers of Alabama. Joined by his two brothers, their business changes as they become cotton factors, buying raw cotton and selling it to producers. It’s the start of a progression towards becoming a bank, trading in nothing but money. When Lehman’s eventually went down, taking global economy with it, trading was in ideas of money, so far removed from goods as to be unrecognisable.
However, The Lehman Trilogy is far from an exercise in confirming what we already think. It is full of family and national dynamics, large and small, very much like a US version of Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks, an account of three generations of Baltic merchants. It is also a feast for the three fine actors who play an uncountable number of roles in the play. Simon Russell Beale, who begins as the eldest brother, starts with a weighty, familiar Russell Beale performance and blossoms in all sorts of unexpected directions, with scene-stealing moments including a piano playing young lady, a tightrope walker, a crumbly rabbi. His evident enjoyment and lightness of touch may herald a new chapter in his brilliant career.
Ben Miles, the more volatile of the original brothers, embodies the volcanic streak in subsequent generations, and Adam Godley is the younger, patronised brother who becomes a demonic presence in the form of the mid-20th century financial pirate, Bobby Lehman. All three range effortless across genders and ages, wearing their 1840s costumes throughout, with the addition of just a hat or a pair of sunglasses.
The dramatic approach seems, on the surface, conventional. Ben Power’s adaptation tells the entire story as a voiceover, with each character describing events and their part in them. This could be alienating, but in fact it is strangely involving, drawing the audience into a family memoir that becomes the soundtrack to the great events of the modern era. The writing is never over-dramatic, but Sam Mendes’ direction contains an incredible range of action – wars, disasters, deaths – in a glass box, with the help of Es Devlin’s digital cyclorama which locates the action across America, from cotton fields to cities. The Lehman Trilogy is an era-defining production for the National Theatre, combing over the politics of our time in a way that offers genuine insight, and gives three of our finest actors some of the roles of their lives.