Saturday 14 July 2018

Theatre review: The Lehman Trilogy

After having apparently been a hit across Europe, Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy gets its first English-language version from Ben Power, and a glossy production at the Lyttelton from Sam Mendes. Apart from very brief glimpses of supernumeraries, the three-and-a-half hour play is cast only with three actors, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley. In the current theatrical climate it's hard not to notice that a banner production at the National Theatre exclusively stars middle-aged white men, but then it's hard to argue that the middle-aged white men they're playing haven't had a significant enough effect on today's world for their story to need to be told: The fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was the trigger for the most recent global recession, whose political after-effects are very much coming to play now; this is the story of the men who created the company, and the descendants who steered it in directions that helped put global finance on a knife-edge.

As the title suggests, The Lehman Trilogy is divided into three roughly equal parts, "Three Brothers," "Fathers & Sons" and "The Immortal," and so taking my cue from Weez asking me to let her know how banking-heavy the whole thing is, I'm doing something similar.

~Part 1: Only Mildly Bankingy~

Es Devlin's set is a New York office around the time the company folded, the desks cleared and the paperwork hastily stuffed away in cardboard boxes, but we're actually going back to 1844 to first meet Bavarian Jew Henry Lehman (SRB) arrive in America to set up a fabric store in Montgomery, Alabama. The area's economy revolves around cotton plantations, so when his brothers Emanuel (Miles) and Mayer (Godley) join him, they increasingly become traders in farming supplies, and eventually brokers in cotton itself, handling the produce of several plantations and selling it on at a profit. When Emanuel goes to New York on a business trip he ends up marrying and staying there, and the business starts to expand into brokering other commodities.

Mendes' production is like a mix of the most sophisticated theatre with the most grass-roots elements of performance: For all that the set frequently revolves and Luke Halls' projections fill the stage with panoramic views of wherever in America the story takes the brothers, really the production is all about the three actors creating their world, often literally building it out of the banking boxes strewn around; and even while, as the German brothers, they narrate the whole story, they also play all the characters from plantation owners to Southern Belles (particularly SRB, who's available to do so because Henry was the first of the original brothers to die.)

~Part 2: Increasingly Bankingesque~

As Emanuel's terrifyingly single-minded and ambitious son Philip (SRB) becomes the dominant force in the company, Lehman Brothers gradually starts to turn into an investement bank, trading not in a variety of goods but in money itself. As all three of the original brothers eventually die, they stay on as narrators but the cast primarily play a new trio of their descendants: Philip, his son Bobby (Godley,) whose artistic temperament he wants to remould into business sense, and his in-house nemesis, Mayer's son Herbert (Miles,) whose conscience makes him object to the company's empire-building, and who eventually leaves the firm to become a much-loved Governor of New York State.

If there's a part of the trilogy that most feels like a metaphor for the rise of unfettered capitalism it's this middle section, as a company built on cotton becomes one built entirely on abstracts, and the Alabama base is given up for good for the financial centre of New York. Of course, a company built on cotton in Alabama is also a company built on slavery, and I don't know if the light touch Massini uses on this subject is an omission that lets his characters off the hook or a deliberate indication of how little though they actually spared for it. After the American Civil War ends, Mayer expects the plantations to be rebuilt and start again on a new model, to be met with despair from the owners who don't know a way to make a profit without slave labour - of all the shows for this particular collection of faces to remind me of you wouldn't think it would be Hamilton, but I did flash back to the moments in that show where the Virginians are utterly unable to comprehend that their financial success might come from anything other than their own good management. To Mayer, the ease with which the plantations had been making a profit doesn't appear to have raised a second thought.

~Part 3: Bankingeddon~

I can't claim to understand the ins and out of the subprime mortgage business that eventually spelt Lehman Brothers' doom, and The Lehman Trilogy doesn't come close to trying to explain it, in an ending which, despite the overall length of the show, manages to feel rushed and as if it misses out the crux of the story. Part of this is down to the way the play is essentially structured as the story of its founding family, which after 1969 had no direct involvement in the company that bore its name. We have been introduced to the son of a Hungarian immigrant (Miles) and the son of a Greek immigrant (SRB*) who will both become major factors in the company's eventual direction, but essentially what we get in this final act is Godley's increasingly creepy Bobby dancing himself into his grave in an ecstasy of moneymaking, as the business of Lehman Brothers increasingly becomes one of dizzying risk and abstraction.

This is interpreted as the three actors literally dancing the Twist in a scene both sinister and funny, that shows why the play manages to keep the attention for such a long time: It's a dizzying story (literally - they've had to put warnings up about some of the projections) of hubris, but at the same time a stylish and simple presentation (a mostly monochrome design with the soundtrack of a single piano) that maintains a sense of fun (it must be years since these actors got to play around with multiple roles like this.) Certain recurring themes show the family losing its roots in favour of profit down the decades, particularly the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva for the dead: For Henry, the company closes for a full week; for Philip, a token three minutes of no trading; when Bobby dies, with no family members left in the business, it isn't marked at all.

So as to how banking-heavy the whole thing is, obviously as the story of one of the most notorious investment banks in New York's history The Lehman Trilogy is at its core about banking; but it's more of a history than an economics lesson. You're unlikely to come out of it knowing the ins and outs of the 2008 crash, more likely to consider it an entertaining morality lesson on how insidiously money can push everything else out of your life.

The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini in a version by Ben Power is booking in repertory until the 20th of October (returns and rush tickets only.)

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes including two intervals.

Photo credit: Mark Douet.

*SRB either didn't get to spend time with a Greek dialect coach at all, or not enough time - there's something very particular about the way he mispronounces his Greek dialogue that suggests he's trying to replicate something written phonetically.

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