The Lehman Trilogy
Stefano Massini, Ben Power
National Theatre and Neal Street Productions
Gillian Lynne Theatre
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Stefano Massini’s epic saga of the Jewish immigrants who gave their name to the bank that spectacularly failed in 2008 was first performed in the UK in 2018 with Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley playing multiple generations of Lehmans with extraordinary dexterity.
The new cast—Michael Balogun (Emanuel Lehman), Hadley Fraser (Mayer Lehman) and Nigel Lindsay (Henry Lehman)—handle their heavy responsibility with consummate professionalism as they play a bewildering number of characters through the generations, major and minor, male and female, young and old.
Sam Mendes has choreographed a tour de force of ensemble acting. The three men narrate for each other, playing multiple generations of Lehmans starting with the first generation of Bavarian immigrants to the United States and even their wives and partners. When not in character, the three narrate in the original Germanic accent, evoking a sense of history and the ironical judgement of the founding brothers upon their successors.
The stage’s rotating glass box contains a modern office with boxes strewn around, foreshadowing the bank’s collapse and the redundant employees’ desultory removal of their belongings. Behind, a versatile screen variously shows cotton fields, Manhattan and rows upon rows of stock prices.
The play doubles as a history of 20th century capitalism, the brothers initially selling cotton, then finding ways to make a profit from being middle men, before finally, in a Faustian business meeting, letting themselves be swallowed whole by trading where money begets money. It’s in the cotton fields—the play suggests—that the seeds of late capitalism are sewn. This sounds potentially weighty, but the playful repetitions make this a joy.
Special mention must go to Nigel Lindsay's physical and comic range as he effortlessly sheds one character's voice for another.
The play is a parable of what happens when the founding principles of business get diluted: the members ending up as immigrants in their own family. We are not too emotionally invested in each individual, but somehow, through the sweep of history, punctuated by Jewish funereal rituals, we end up caring about the continuity of the family, no matter how amoral the origins of its success.
The play truncates the last few decades before the 2008 crash and barely says anything about the immediate proximate causes of the bank’s demise. This doesn’t matter. A detailed explanation of credit default swaps would have added little to the already powerful suggestiveness and moral warnings. Liquidate all your assets to buy a ticket.
Reviewer: Tim Fox