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Review: The Lehman Trilogy, at Lyttelton, National Theatre

Production that goes back to the early days of Lehman Brothers is a portrait of the changing face of capitalism that makes for superb theatre

19 July, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

Simon Russell Beale in The Lehman Trilogy. Photo: Mark Douet

WHEN Lehman Brothers Holdings filed for bankruptcy in 2008 it triggered a world financial crisis. Stefano Massini’s play, which ran for five hours in Italian but is cut down to a little over three (plus intervals) in this English adaptation by Ben Power and the company, doesn’t centre on that event.

It follows the family firm’s history from the arrival of Hayum Lehman in New York in 1844 (when he is renamed Henry) but in Sam Mendes’ production Es Devlin’s set is a constant reminder of that collapse 164 years later. It is played out in the corporation’s Manhattan glass and steel offices which revolve in front of a vast cyclorama on which Luke Hall’s projections carry us from bustling New York to Alabama’s burning cotton fields or the maelstrom of stock market dealing.

After a janitor shuts up the deserted office, Simon Russell Beale appears as Henry, a young Jew from Rimpar in Bavaria, black-suited like an early Victorian daguerreotype to start recounting his arrival in New York. This is a play that is nearly all third-person narration with only snatches of dialogue.

After Henry sets up shop selling clothes to the poor in Alabama his younger brother Mendell, renamed Emanuel (Ben Miles), joins him and then teenage Meyer (Adam Godley), whom the others call “potato”. They start dealing in cotton, open a New York office, after the Civil War start a bank to aid reconstruction, trade in coffee and invest in railways. The next generation diversifies into movies and airlines; Meyer’s son Herbert goes into politics. Lehmans survives the 1929 crash and the Depression but after third-generation Bobbie set up a trading department investment became more speculative and after his death without heir in 1969 others run Lehmans.

These three fine actors play all three generations of Lehmans, cleverly creating distinct individuals and also offering quick cameos of everyone they encounter from Beale’s coy blushing 19th century bride and bold 20th century divorcee to the financiers from outside the family who take over. In-depth portrayals are joined by playful charade-like creations. This picture of the changing face of capitalism is full of humour.

The Lehman Trilogy could be described as a lot of talk in a glass box but three exceptional actors and the skilful integration of every aspect of this production make it a superb piece of theatre.

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