• 'The Lehman Trilogy'

    It took 150 years for the financial giant that was Lehman Brothers to be built, beginning with the 1844 arrival in America of Hayum Lehmann, followed by his brother Mendel and their brother Mayer. It all ended in 2008 and almost took the world with it, but this brilliant, sell-out play takes us back to that first moment when a German immigrant set up a store in Alabama and started to think of expansion…

    Co-incidentally or not, in the lobby of the National Theatre you can pick up a free copy of a financial newspaper containing an article about bullying, arrogant bankers before taking your seat. Over the next three hours Stefano Massini does much the same, rewinding history before fast-forwarding us through a century and a half of ingenuity, humour, honour and ambition later contaminated by avarice, contempt and ego. The journey is a thrilling one, as Hayum becomes Henry, Mendel becomes Emmanuel and Mayer joins them both in a land of opportunity.

    The title does double duty, describing the play’s three-act structure and sibling subject, but arguably takes in a third meaning as a trio of wars visit hell and damnation but also possibilities. As supplying goods to slaves and plantation owners turns into raw cotton trading, post-Civil War reconstruction opens new doors. Coffee and the railways move the brothers’ business into a new century, when communications and banking beckon. After that third conflict computers and electronic trading ally with less substantial products built with electrons, until the house of cards so made collapses.

    In the programme Ben Power succinctly describes the approach taken when adapting Massini, noting the attempt to preserve “his vision, his wit and his humanity”. Regardless of who wrote what line, the text that results – part thought, part narration, part speech – resonates with all three.

    At the very start, the newly-arrived Henry is awed by what he calls the “music box” of America where, for every door that closes, another opens. He sells fabric from his humble shop, by the yard but more often by the inch to even more humble clients. At this rate, he muses, his debt will take “three more years of inches” to clear.

    The language of money is heard throughout, though almost never the dust-dry technical terms – collateralized debt obligations, subprime mortgages – that would ultimately bring everything down. Instead the brothers yearn for the “zeros, zeros, zeros” they see at the New York Cotton Exchange, and “trust me” becomes their mantra over repeated generations. As their wealth and influence piles up, so do the phrases expressing this. “One runs Lehmans, the other a gold mine” comments one onlooker. Wondering which descendent would help out in another catastrophic situation, another ponders that “Noah had to save the world but at least he didn’t have competition”; and the world of finance is “a club for bankers”. But that humanity Power cited is there as well. “Growing old,” we hear, “is to inhabit a new land” quite different from one’s native territory, where a new language is to be learned.

    All of this is delivered by three actors playing – exceptionally well – not just the three brothers but also those same men at different ages, occasionally each other, and also their sons, grandsons, girlfriends, wives, clients and partners. It is brought together in an astonishingly fluid melange that moves between accent, vocabulary, point of view, gender, time and space with supreme facility.

    Each of the principals brings a unique talent to the production. Simon Russell Beale’s solidity and gravitas is necessary and effective as Henry builds his business and anchors the events to come. This is though nicely undercut from time to time: by Henry’s wonder on arrival in America, through a homely, proprietorial guided tour of the shop and – best of all – when Russell Beale inhabits the first of several female roles for the cast as the brothers find their wives. Ben Miles is superb as Emanuel, the “arm” to Henry’s head, with a powerful delivery that is also modified endlessly as he essays additional characters. A highlight sees him playing the three year old son of his brother, sitting on his father’s lap and tickling his beard. Here, too, is Massini and Power’s humanity. Adam Godley equals Russell Beale in versatility and perhaps outshines him in humour and energy respectively as he scrolls rapidly and utterly brilliantly through a gallery of potential women for Philip Lehman to date, and later maintains a manic, desperate Twist routine as the aging Bobbi Lehman who, like those around him, feels the need to keep up the “dance” of moving money.

    In a key scene in the final act, the senior Lehmans are old and frail, the startlingly clever but coldly calculating son Philip keen to exploit this and move the bank into new areas that they simply don’t understand. “You have employees to do the work,” he tells them, “you just have to sign it off”. It is the moment when the old world gave way to the new, and when the insistent greed that is portrayed in the later stages of the play future took root.

    The play is performed in a space of beguiling simplicity but also hidden complexity designed by Es Devlin. Elevated slightly on the Lyttleton’s revolve is a rectangular box of slim steel beams and – for the most part – floor to ceiling glazing. Within, one large and three small rooms are minimally furnished: office chairs, a long conference table, a chrome lamp, an umbrella stand. It is a corner of a Wall Street tower from the middle of the last century, a slice of Miesian Modernism whose perfection is marred only by boxes – a few dozen white cardboard boxes, of the kind we in Britain call archive boxes but which are properly known as bankers’ boxes – a sly touch. These, moved by the cast as needed, are combined props and flats. They serve as seats, counters, pulpits and more even before their final, moving appearance as themselves in a recreation of the eponymous bank’s final day. The ceiling of this ‘office’ provides almost all of the lighting, varying at need from spot to flood, colour to monochrome, bright to dark, and the entire construction turns on cue, revealing and concealing as the story unfolds, the music box of Henry Lehman’s mind brought to life. Behind, a panorama sweeping around the entire rear of the stage receives projected images, still and moving, that complement the action. It is the final entry in another trilogy, after Devlin’s remarkable work on Chimerica and The Nether.

    Sam Mendes directs with a flawless eye for motions that move the actors and the audience alike. The former sit and stand and step and lie and walk effortlessly up and down, in and out, and around and about. In several scenes Mendes, surely drawing on his cinematic career, has his actors walk through the box as it rotates, keeping pace with its movement as it turns and thus effectively standing still, to create a kind of tracking shot.

    With only two scenes set in 2008, the first and the last, both achieving great pathos, The Lehman Trilogy takes the brothers and us forward and backward only to end up where we began. It is – or should be, and especially to those featured in that newspaper article – a salutary lesson, albeit beautifully delivered.

    The Lehman Trilogy, by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power, a co-production with Neal Street Productions, finishes tonight at the National Theatre but transfers to the Piccadilly Theatre, London W1 from 11 May 2019.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour, collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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