The Lehman Trilogy
Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power
National Theatre and Neal Street Productions
Lyttelton Theatre (National Theatre)
Over the years, when the National gets it right, the result has usually been the best play of the year. With The Lehman Trilogy, they have got it right.
At first sight, a 3 hour 20 minute history of an American banking corporation stretching across over 160 years might seem unlikely material for a gripping drama. However, Rupert Goold (in attendance on opening night) managed it with Lucy Prebble’s Enron, so the augers were good.
There was also the question of how a cast of only three could conceivably sustain such a long piece. However, when the trio comprises Simon Russell Beale (who can do no wrong in many people's eyes), Ben Miles and Adam Godley under the direction of Sam Mendes, all doubts should instantly have disappeared.
Accompanied by a solo pianist and located on a revolving set designed by Es Devlin and backed by a 180° screen projecting Luke Halls’s attractive computer-generated images of American life, the evening opens in 1844. This is the year in which Russell Beale's brainy Chaim (soon to become Henry) Lehman arrives in America from Bavaria and quickly opens a clothing store in Alabama.
Before long, younger brothers, action man Emanuel (Miles) and shrewd strategist Mayer (Godley) arrive and join a business that moves on into cotton then any number of other commodities, always ahead of the market in whatever the business does. By the end of the first of three parts punctuated by intervals, the family has drifted into banking and is making a good fist of it.
Gradually the older generation dies or moves aside, loquacious Philip (Russell Beale) taking the helm towards the end of the 19th century and riding many storms up to The Great Depression of 1929 when the world finds itself in "a car with no brakes". Now mixing the metaphors, gambler Bobby (Godley), from the third generation steps in to become a second Noah as floods threaten to drown the business, watched from a distance by contradictory and confrontational cousin Herbert (Miles), whose commercial acumen may have been lacking but hardly harmed a political career that led to the Senate.
Having kept afloat through the bad times, the family and business thrive for decades until eventually, as banking gives way to trading, the family gone, a Greek and a Hungarian make money beyond anyone's wildest dreams. The events of 2008 that led to the collapse of a business that had proved impregnable for over a century and a half through feast and famine, war and peace, are represented by little more than an empty boardroom and could easily form the basis for a sequel. However, they hang over the story from start to finish.
There are many reasons to book tickets for this intoxicating evening. To start with, although the storytelling is a little stronger than the characterisation, all three actors excel both in their primary roles and when taking many small cameos. This means that, without wishing to detract from his fellows’ wondrous efforts, Simon Russell Beale gives a multiple masterclass in character acting. They are helped along by a fluent script that can be poetic and, aided by the canny direction of Sam Mendes, contains much humour.
Viewers will also learn much about cultural change and commercial life, greed and luck along the way, in addition to getting a surprisingly comprehensive education in Jewish religious law / lore.
It is never easy to know what is just around the corner but there is every chance that The Lehman Trilogy will win multiple awards for Best Actor, Best Director and Best New Play come the end of the year. One hopes that it also has a long-term future and might even outdo Enron by cracking that hard nut, Broadway.