Throughout the 180-minute running time (plus two 15-minute intervals) of Stefano Massini’s sprawling but beautifully contained epic The Lehman Trilogy, the word “miracle” is evoked to describe the upwardly spiralling good fortune, over three centuries, of the three brothers whose financial acumen reached legendary proportions and, for several generations, made them one of the wealthiest families in America. The word “miracle” can also be used to describe this compulsively watchable, stunningly acted, impeccably directed and visually extraordinary production, which brought an engrossed audience to its feet, bravo-ing an enthusiastic response throughout five prolonged curtain calls.
Originally premiered in Paris in 2013 and Milan in 2015, the play was two hours longer and employed a large cast in keeping with its epic intentions. In the National’s version, skilfully adapted by Ben Power, the cast has been paired down to just three actors (Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles) playing several roles of either sex with absolutely no loss to the panoramic sweep of the story. And unlike the European staging, the play now begins and ends on September 15th, 2008, the day the Lehman Brothers' office in New York filed for bankruptcy 164 years after it all started.
After a seamless flashback, the narrative begins in 1844 with the arrival from Bavaria to “the magical music box called America” of Hayum Lehmann (Beale), his name tweaked at Ellis Island to Henry Lehman. Taking up residence in Montgomery, Alabama, Henry opens a small general store selling fabrics. Three years later, a second brother, Mendel (Miles), now called Emanuel, joins him, and three years after that Mayer (Godley), the baby of the family, completes the Jewish triumvirate. They call themselves the Lehman Brothers and in the next few years make a small fortune buying raw cotton and selling it at a considerable profit.
A few decades later they become millionaires, having graduated from shop-keeping and cotton merchandising to titans in the coffee industry, the rapidly expanding railway business and even more impressively, banking. What they trade in now is money.
Of course, the phenomenal growth of the Lehmans covers several generations, and it isn't until the 60s, with the death in 1969 of Bobbie, a third (and final) generation Lehman, that the business is acquired by outsiders, who control its fortunes until it becomes enmeshed in the subprime-mortgage lending debacle and crashes in 2008.
Shoe-horning such a complex dynastic saga – a rags-to-riches tale right up there with the rise of the Rothschild family – into three hours while at the same time tracing the rise of Western capitalism in general and the pivotal role played by one powerful family and its offspring in particular, is nothing short of remarkable. And how quickly the time passes! It's like bingeing on an addictive Netflix series, not just because of adapter Power’s unfaltering ability to keep the narrative lucid and constantly on the move, but because of the charm, versatility, conviction and sheer brilliance of all three of the performances.
Russell-Beale, one of Britain’s finest and most reliable classical actors, begins the play as Henry, then imposes himself as brother Emanuel’s formidably perspicacious son Philip, as well as offering spot-on turns as an elderly, physically challenged rabbi, a tight-rope walker, a flirtatious divorcee, a shy Alabama damsel and several other cameos.
Godley, who first appears as the patronised youngster Mayer, demonstrates his own bravura versatility, especially playing, with just the slightest change of gesture and expression, a dozen possible matrimonial candidates who Philip quizzes and callously marks from one to 100. He’s just as convincing as a mewling infant, and the spectacle of him, in the guise of Bobbie, the last surviving Lehman, as he literally dances himself to death doing the twist, is one of the show’s indelible set pieces.
Miles, who begins as Emanuel, also stamps his authority on a variety of roles involving the more fractious members of the Lehman tribe as well as several outsiders and wealthy rivals. All three of these extraordinary actors give master classes in the art of character acting, demonstrating the efficacy of cast-cutting as well as cost-cutting.
Keeping it all under control and sustaining momentum throughout is director Sam Mendes, who, without ever taking his foot off the accelerator, is never self-consciously flash. He is immeasurably assisted by Es Devlin’s revolving glass cube of a set, the background of which comprises a series of generally black and white panoramic video images that morph from cotton fields to the Atlantic ocean, the Manhattan skyline and Wall Street. Equally effective is the simple but inventive use of dozens of cardboard packing boxes, which are symbolically used throughout the play to underline several plot points, including the collapse of the Lehman empire.
Simple too are Katrina Lindsay’s costumes – well-tailored 19th-century frock coats that remain unaltered or changed from first scene to last, a constant reminder of the upwardly mobile family’s humble beginnings. Maximum effectiveness with minimal resources can also be found in the production’s musical programme, provided by a single piano (take a bow pianist Candida Caldictot) that, for nearly three hours, tinkles away in the background – sometimes unnecessarily so.
Though Power’s script canters through the last half hour (the high-risk subprime mortgage fiasco is, for example, given short shrift, having already been more fully explored in several films and plays), what comes across, very forcibly, is a cautionary tale – a biblical parable, almost – of the destructive nature of greed and unbridled acquisitiveness. The play’s most compelling image, used both in the text and on the cover of the programme, is of a tightrope walker who, every day, for many years, walked a tightrope attached to two telegraph poles outside the Lehman’s Manhattan offices. The only occasion he ever fell, we’re told, was on the day the company filed for bankruptcy. For the best part of 160 years the Lehmans successfully walked a financial tightrope that, in essence, is the “miracle” alluded to on several occasions.
Without ever being didactic, one of the most telling moments is the disintegration of the family’s religious values in relentless pursuit of more wealth and power. When Henry dies from yellow fever in 1855, the family sits shiva for a week. When Philip dies in 1947, they sit for three days, and when Bobbie dies in 1969, they have a three-minute silence before going back to work.
The Lehman Trilogy is full of such detailed, telling observations as it chronicles, without ever getting red in the face, the catastrophic consequences of untethered financial hubris. London has several really good productions on offer this summer, but nothing as thrilling as this.