The National Theatre’s Sam Mendes-directed blockbuster ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ – now on its second West End run, after conquering Broadway last year – is performed on Es Devlin’s modern boardroom set, and bookended by short scenes from the 2008 demise of Lehman Brothers, the investment bank. But that is not the story that Italian playwright Stefano Massini – as adapted by Ben Power – wanted to tell.
‘The Lehman Trilogy’ isn’t about banking or the credit crunch. It’s about a family, and about the dizzying lifecycle of that family’s business during America’s chaotic years of ascent.
Bavarian Jewish immigrant Henry Lehman (nee Hayum Lehmann) arrived in the US in 1844. In the years that followed, he was joined by his brothers, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman. They founded a cotton merchant together, that would eventually mutate into an investment bank. Eugene’s grandson, Bobby, was the last Lehman to run the company. And that’s effectively where this story ends, with Bobby’s death in 1969.
So it’s the tale of a family business. And it’s utterly engrossing, built on hyperdetailed, surprisingly joke-packed old school narrated storytelling. It takes a lot of licenses, but it tells a story that has a compellingly unpredictable tang of truth to it. It’s startling how Henry dies after just a few years; how the trio had no intention of becoming bankers but were essentially slowly forced into it to adapt to America’s febrile tides; how Emanuel’s son Philip is so totally different to his serious-minded father and uncles, a creature born of New York, who soon supplants and surpasses his father.
Of course, it’s also a story about America. The Lehmans lived through some serious history. They arrived when the country was still young and welcomed anyone who turned up at its docks; after settling in the South their lives were profoundly shaken by the Civil War; later Philip and his rebellious son Bobby must negotiate the horrors of the Wall Street Crash.
It’s beautifully detailed, and often moves the spotlight away from the Lehmans themselves in order to better explain the times – for instance, an almost ritualistic sequence about the stockbrokers who killed themselves on the morning of the crash. Luke Halls’s monochrome projections of old New York are ravishing. You can see why it went down so well on Broadway: it’s full of wonder at America’s turbo-charged evolution.
Nigel Lindsay, Michael Balogun and Hadley Fraser are the second UK cast, and they’re excellent at riding the lightning of Massini/Power’s breakneck prose. Lindsay is the avuncular workhorse of the trio, playing a lot of straight roles but also having a ball taking on the motor-mouthed ur-New Yorker Philip; rising star Balogun adds some fire and brimstone the intense, driven Emanuel, the longest-lived and most influential Lehman; Fraser adds a feyer, wispier touch in his roles, notably as the eccentric Bobby. They play a multitude of roles with incredible deftness, including a host of women and kids. That’s funny, although having women as essentially minor joke characters – even if the joke is generally on the actor playing her – does underscore what a sausage fest this is, and I can’t help but feel there’s a dimension missing in making this three-and-half-hour epic essentially entirely about men.
But what a three-and-a-half-hour epic about men it is! Mendes’s production is never less than riveting, and Massini’s play – and Ben Power’s adaption – often ferociously smart. Mendes’s production is extremely smart in using the cyclical nature of history to foreshadow the credit crunch without feeling the need to bang on about it: the 2008 scenes are brilliant for the total confidence evidenced in keeping them so brief.
Multigenerational family drama are ten a penny, but ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ is something more, a rare, true, virtuosic look at the entire lifecycle of a family business, burning its way indelibly through history.
You can read our previous 2018 review here.