Review: The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre

Lehman Brothers trilogy
National Theatre
Philip Fisher
Columnist
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There can have been few plays in recent years that will be of more interest to accountants than The Lehman Trilogy by Italian writer Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power, which opened at the National Theatre last week and plays until 20 October.

As every reader is bound to recall, the Lehman Brothers dynasty had built itself into one of America’s largest banks before spectacularly exploding out of existence in 2008, during a series of events that also took down Enron (the subject of another fine play) and Andersen’s.

In the sure hands of James Bond director Sam Mendes, viewers will be sitting on the edges of their seats for fully 3 hours 20 minutes learning the full history of a business that started out as a single clothes store in Alabama run by immigrants from Bavaria in 1844 and eventually became one of the most famous and successful corporations in the world.

Remarkably, the Lehman story is delivered by just a trio of speaking actors, but what a trio. Simon Russell Beale, who starts out as Henry (Chaim before he got to New York’s Ellis Island), is undoubtedly the best stage actor currently working, while Ben Miles and Adam Godley are almost equally impressive as his younger brothers.

By the end of the evening, each of the actors has played numerous other roles, primarily younger members of the Lehman family but also others with whom they interact. In doing so, each proves to be a fine character actor with Simon Russell Beale delivering work of true genius.

The story’s fascination, particularly for those who are steeped in commerce, lies in the opportunity to see how Jewish brothers with traditional views running a clothes store in Alabama started a dynasty.

First, they branched out into cotton when Godley’s inventive Mayer identified an opportunity. Next, they realised that their industry was not properly financed so created one of America’s earliest banks.

Over the years, through feast and famine, war and peace and across the generations, the business thrived and, after its move to New York, became a veritable institution relied upon by big business, as well as the great and the good.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the topic that receives the least coverage is the bank’s demise, possibly the subject of a sequel. All that we really learn is of the family’s withdrawal and an increasing reliance on the profits derived from market trading, along with the inherent risks that such business inevitably brings.

On a simple revolving set that largely comprises the vacated office of a bankrupt company, backed by spectacular projections on a 180° screen, and with accompaniment from a solo pianist, this is not a complex production.

However, thanks to the acting and the really strong underlying story that gets the heart of business practice over a period of 164 years, this is an intoxicating, unforgettable evening that is strongly recommended, as long as tickets can be procured, which may eventually require the kind of finance that would have fulfilled the dreams of The Lehman Trilogy when they first arrived in the United States.

In the fullness of time though, is likely to appear live at a cinema near you and might well eventually transfer to the West End and/or Broadway.

About Philip Fisher

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