The defining image of the 2008 financial crash was the Lehman Brothers staff leaving their glass and steel building on Wall Street with nothing more than a shoebox full of their belongings. It was an ignominious end for the so-called masters of the universe. Sam Mendes (American Beauty) has brilliantly reworked those boxes into his magnificent three-part family drama The Lehman Trilogy. Over the course of three and half hours a dozen boxes the size of the average shoe box form the essential props in the telling of the story of this fascinating family of German Jews who arrived in America in 1844 and starting with a one-room shop in Montgomery Alabama selling fabric grew to become the global investment bank Lehman Brothers. The boxes are used to sit on, walk up and down, they represent the stock in the shop and at one point are stacked up to form a modern Tower of Babel, which appropriately enough comes crashing down. The simplicity of the boxes as props is pure genius.
If the direction from Sam Mendes is spot on then the acting from the trio of Simon Russell Beale (Henry Lehman), Ben Miles (Emanuel Lehman) and Adam Godley (Mayer Lehman) is breathtaking. These three are on stage for three hours playing not just the Lehman Brothers but all the other parts as well, including women and babies. The switching of gender, age, and accent often within seconds is acting at its mesmerising best. To be word perfect for three hours all the while switching roles is outstanding. There are some delicious moments to savour. As when Adam Godley plays, in turn, six different potential wives for Philip Lehman as he coldly marks them out of a hundred. He eventually settles for Carrie Lauer who top-scored on 85.
Each act lasts an hour with two intervals. Part One called Three Brothers takes the story from 1844. Part Two Fathers and Sons takes the story into the 20th century and Part Three The Immortals ends with the crash of 2008. The key moments are told with such wonderful artfulness and simplicity that time flows and we left wanting more. I’ve mentioned the boxes but equally powerful is the curved backdrop which extends across the width of the stage onto which are projected stunning panoramas of the cotton fields of Alabama ablaze after a disastrous fire, the open prairie through which the transpacific railroad will be laid, and of course the New York skyline. Es Devlin has cleverly integrated the revolving stage to suggest the dizzying runaway nature of Lehman’s rise and fall. The Lehman Trilogy is a triumph and a tragedy. That it should all end in a shoebox is a sobering comeuppance.
Review by John O’Brien
On a cold September morning in 1844, a young man from Bavaria stands on a New York dockside. Dreaming of a new life in the new world. He is joined by his two brothers and an American epic begins.
163 years later, the firm they establish – Lehman Brothers – spectacularly collapses into bankruptcy, and triggers the largest financial crisis in history.
Sam Mendes (Skyfall, King Lear) returns to the National to direct Ben Power’s English version of Stefano Massini’s vast and poetic play, a hit across Europe.
Simon Russell Beale
Director Sam Mendes
Set Designer Es Devlin
Costume Designer Katrina Lindsay
Video Designer Luke Halls
Lighting Designer Jon Clark
Music and Sound Nick Powell
Movement – Polly Bennett
Company Voice and Dialect Work -Charmian Hoare
Music Director – Candida Caldicot
Associate Director – Zoé Ford
The Lehman Trilogy
A co-production with Neal Street Productions
by Stefano Massini
adapted by Ben Power
Currently booking to 20th October 2018
Running Time: approximately 3hrs 20min including two 15min intervals