We’ve just returned from a performance of the Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre. It was one of the best plays we’ve seen in years, truly awesome.
While previous performances of the play across Europe have involved vast casts, Ben Power‘s (the NT deputy artistic director’s) English language version of Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s play involves just three actors. They re-enact the one and a half centuries of the Lehman brothers’ family history from when the first of the initial three brothers emigrated from a small village in Bavaria (where I’m from) to Montgomery, Alabama, in the South of the U.S. From when they were god-fearing, law-abiding, humble, not-so-well-to-do corner store owners (and later on cotton merchants) to them losing control of their investment bank in the 1960s, and to the bank’s demise as a faceless global investment bank in the Financial Crisis of 2008, when godless monsters like Dick Fuld had taken the reins off of them, purely focused on personal gain and limitless greed.
This photo, the feature photo (man on a rope) are (c) National Theatre. Other photos are (c) IMDB, except photo of the stage with standing ovations which is (c) Berkeley Square Barbarian
The play lives on the great performances of Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles, who play the Lehman Brothers, their sons, grandsons, and other characters. They also each switch into the role of narrator and set out on in-character monologues, with dialogues limited to relatively rare and short occasions. Sam Mendes of James Bond and King Lear fame flawlessly tells the story of the three brothers who come to the promised land to build a future for themselves.
The three actors and their director appear to be a perfect team. Beale and Godley have both worked with Mendes extensively before. Multiple Olivier Award and BAFTA winner Beale, described by The Independent as “the greatest stage actor of his generation,” is the most famous of the three leads. The gay icon first made it big in comic stage roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company. More recently he played a major part in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin.
Tony and Olivier Award nominee Godley is perhaps best known to a wider audience from his many TV appearances, among others on Breaking Bad (Elliot Schwarz), Manhattan (Dr. Adelman), and Suits (Nigel Nesbitt). Miles had a major part in the magnificent V for Vendetta alongside Natalie Portman, and recently drew attention playing Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter)’s love affair Peter Townsend in the critically acclaimed and popular Netflix drama The Crown.
Part of the magic happens when the three actors (whom TimeOut’s review quite harshly calls “three white middle aged men at the top of their white middle aged game” to criticise the lack of diversity) are forced to jump into roles not naturally coming to them, such as girlfriends and wives of their brothers. What could easily have turned into cheap slapstick becomes great theatre moments. We’ve not been to many plays where the audience is so constantly bursting out into heartfelt laughter.
Es Devlin’s revolving stage set is an empty office on the upper floors of the Lehman Brothers headquarters in Times Square, New York, shortly after the collapse in 2008, with empty and packed boxes still standing around everywhere and most of the office furniture not yet removed. The walls are made of transparent glass. Luke Halls’s photographic projections onto the back wall of the stage are nicely done and help in setting the right scene for each stage in the Lehman’s history. We also enjoyed the live pianist, who more or less enters a back-and-forth with the actors on a couple of occasions, leading to laughs and applause for her performance.
I have myself been working for Lehman’s until September 2008 and was one of the guys who left the building with a cardboard box in his hands (even made it to some newspaper front pages yay!). So initially my expectation was that the play would focus on those last few months before the collapse, because that’s the period I was involved in (not as a perpetrator, I’m a regulatory compliance professional and regulatory compliance of the London entity was not an issue here).
However, the play gives equal time to each decade and hardly touches on the past few months. “The gorilla” is off again as soon as he’s been introduced. At first I felt a tiny tad disappointed, but it soon dawned on me that this is the best way of telling this story.
It’s most of all a true story about a family (who unfortunately did not do the dramaturgically decent thing of keeping ownership of the firm and the main characters in play until the finish line in 2008). History. It is also a story about how honest, hard-working, god-fearing people have long been a dying breed and the reins have been passed over to unaccountable, faceless, overpaid ‘executives’ with no bacon in the game.
We absolutely loved this play! 5 out of 5.
Word of warning: the play lasts three hours and 20 minutes (with two 15-minute intervals; the original play is even nearly two hours longer!). Tickets have now sold out (all the way up to 20th October, when the play finishes), but according to the National Theatre webpage additional tickets will be available via ‘Friday Rush’ and ‘Day Tickets’ (links here).
Thank you for having stopped by. Hope to see you again soon.