The Lehman Trilogy looks at the origins of the bank which failed spectacularly in 2008, with a British star cast and Sam Mendes as director...
“We are merchants of money.”
Between Canary Wharf Station and Heron Quays, I regularly walk past the building that was the show office of the New York bank Lehman Brothers. At night I would see the limousines with international surnames written on cards in the window awaiting those still working at 11pm. In September 2018, I saw men in shorts and casual clothes, and a few women, who were leaving Lehman Brothers carrying their desk possessions in those cardboard boxes used to hold A4 sheets of printing paper. The limousines disappeared for a few weeks but soon London cabs were back in their place at night. An oriental bank took over and now the prestigious offices are those of JP Morgan and there are some limousines back at night.
Stefano Massini, an Italian writer, has written the play The Lehman Trilogy which has been adapted by Ben Power, the Deputy Artistic Director of the National Theatre. The Lehman Trilogy traces the family saga of the three original Lehman brothers who came to America from Bavaria in the 1840s and settled in Montgomery Alabama. The play looks at how they diversified from a fabric store to hardware and agricultural equipment into cotton broking and loans, and eventually into a bank.
What makes these plays remarkably good is the director Sam Mendes but also the varied talent of Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles. Russell Beale is in his element, able to take on the comic roles of the brother’s wives and fiancées or an Alabamian cotton farmer with laconic Southern ease. Adam Godley too gets a chance to show his thespian versatility although Ben Miles seemed mostly confined to the straight man roles. I really can’t understand why Simon Russell Beale is not yet a knight of the theatre*, unless of course he has turned one down, such is his acting achievement and range and his mellifluous voice.
Es Devlin is famous for her compartmentalised sets and here in a glass windowed revolving, monochromed steel and chrome office, the cast move those cardboard cartons around to provide steps and different levels of playing area. Projection at the rear shows first the relentlessly flat, grey ocean but later skyscapers. A lone pianist in view like in the silent films plays classical music. The story telling is so powerful that it gives all the pleasure of reading an engrossing book yourself when the characters have leapt off the page. The three main actors keep our attention for three and a half hours.
The first act, Three Brothers, has all the evocative power of a dramatic family history as we witness Hayum Lehman (Simon Russell Beale) in a black frock coat, the son of a Bavarian cattle merchant, travel by ship to America in 1844. His name is changed by the American authorities to Henry. Three years later he is joined by his brother Mendel Lehman (Ben Miles) whose name is similarly misentered as Emanuel. This story relies on a soundscape and the wonderful voices of the actors as we hear how hard they worked to establish their business. Mayer Lehman (Adam Godley) joins them and is allowed to keep his name! Henry dies of yellow fever in 1850. Within ten years the brothers are buying and selling raw cotton and by 1860 they have opened an office in New York.
Four years of civil war hit the South and Lehman Brothers take a part in the reconstruction of Alabama after the destruction of the South in the war. The first act ends with the shadow of the war but of course another shadow is there because we all know how this story of enterprise and dedication will end.
Act Two, Fathers and Son, uses a black and white image of the tight rope walker among the New York skyscrapers as a metaphor for the vicissitudes of the stock market. We hear about their wives and children as the Lehmans become increasingly more eligible with the growth of their banking interests into railways and tobacco, airplanes and entertainment. Emanuel’s son Philip (Simon Russell Beale) with his catchphrase “It’s simply strategy,” seems to have a quirky but genius understanding of the markets. His cousin Herbert, Mayer’s son becomes a politician and mayor of New York leaving the firm in 1928. Act Two finishes on the Great Crash of 1929.
In Act Three, The Immortal, Philip’s son Bobby (Adam Godley) somewhat of a playboy, who has interests in horseracing, is the last Lehman to lead the bank which is sold to American Express in 1984. The subprime mortgage lending crisis brings about the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
At three hours 30 minutes, 100 minutes have been shaved off Stefano Massini’s original play, seen in France and Italy, by Ben Power, but by 1907, 101 years before the demise of Lehman Brothers, the last of the three brothers had died. Somehow the story of the financiers loses some of its American Dream without the three immigrants. For me, the final act was not up to the magnificent standard of the first, nor did it really explain the subprime crisis and how that foolish lending came about. Maybe the adaptors were influenced by the Enron play crashing in New York, a much lauded production in the UK but where the British dramatic analysis of another American financial failure went down badly.
However as the first act of The Lehman Trilogy is the most brilliantly constructed piece of sublime acting and poetic writing with its rhythmic repetition, it is surely a contender for the best new play awards and Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley for best actor.
*At the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2019 Simon Russell Beale received a knighthood.
The Lehman Trilogy
Written by Stefano Massini
Adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Sam Mendes
Simon Russell Beale
Director: Sam Mendes
Set Designer: Es Devlin
Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting Designer: Jon Clarke
Music and Sound Designer: Nick Powell
Video Designer: Luke Halls
Music Director and Piano: Candida Caldicott
Running Time: Three hours 30 minutes with two intervals
Closed at the Lyttelton Theatre on 20th October 2018, then transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre from 11th May 2019 to 31st August 2019
London SE1 9PX
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Lyttelton Theatre on 17th October 2018