Review: The Lehman Trilogy, National Theatre ‘Little Beneath its Exquisite Surface’


It’s hard to know where to begin with The Lehman Trilogy, if I’m honest. There’s so many places I could start, not least with the fact that it makes no difference what I write anyway as each performance in the run was sold out even before the first show opened. Simply, my concern is that though there’s no doubting the exquisiteness in so much of this production’s execution, it’s quite something when you spend over three hours watching a show and still, by the end, you’ve absolutely no idea what the point of it all was.

Now, I was initially enthusiastic and hesitant about seeing this Sam Mendes production of writer Stefano Massini’s play (here, adapted by Ben Power) that has been hugely popular on the Continent. You see, I am not proud to say that I know a hell of a lot about investment banking; I spent much of my former life on trading floors. But would I be one of those nit-pickers who pulls apart each element of the show to say, ‘no, it doesn’t work like that?’ That was what I was worried about.

Well, actually there was no need for this concern as the play is not about investment banking at all really. Not much, anyhow. Rather, it follows the rise and fall of the Lehman family, from their lowly immigrant status as brothers – Henry, Emanuel and Mayer – just arrived dockside in New York in 1844, through the family business’s rise to the top of investment banking, and on to the spectacular collapse of the business (almost taking the entire industry with it) in 2008.

If you think such an epic requires a vast cast, think again, for all the characters across the generations in this play are played by Simon Russel Beale (extraordinary), Ben Miles (extraordinary – and I’m still bitter about him being overlooked for the Olivier for his performances in Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies), and Adam Godley (also extraordinary).

The three of them chart the rise of this family through squabbles, marriages, wars and upheavals. It’s warm, it’s sad and it is superbly done. But I’ve just no idea what the point of it all was.

I had half-expected the theme here to be the folly of ambition, or the moral corruption of capitalism, but there is no lesson learnt (the Lehman family, after all, remain billionaires even though the bank no longer exists), and though we witness the bank’s collapse, it seems the creatives are unsure why the bank collapsed (give me a call, I can explain) or seemed unable to answer their own question, ‘what if everyone stops buying?’

Perhaps this was another Hamilton-esque story on how ‘immigrants get the job done’. But if that’s the case, boy, are there issues with that…

The omission of the fact that the original Lehman brothers profited heavily off the slave trade is deeply uncomfortable. The matter is barely mentioned, only obliquely. It is extremely dangerous to somehow frame a ‘boys done good’ tale without a clear-eyed analysis on who suffered for that success to thrive. And this narrow focus on white men isn’t helped with a worrying depiction of the women characters.

SRB, Ben and Adam are the only actors on stage for the duration of the show (though there’s a brief scene with some extras and their cardboard boxes at the end). But there are women characters included amongst the speaking parts so, to bring them to life, the big three switch to women, when needed, by changing the pitch of their voices, bending their knees and fluttering their eyebrows.

This ‘men playing women’ obviously harks back to Shakespeare’s days and, frankly, this is where this should stay. This ‘men playing women’ was played for laughs and I don’t like it, and if you think I’m being touchy, you can think again. Playing femininity for laughs is dangerous territory, especially when this is done by men. Why are we encouraged to laugh at feminine men? Do you get what a problem this is if we continue to frame masculinity and femininity in these terms?

Every time SRB gave a coquettish smile and giggled softly, the audience guffawed with laughter. And I died a little more. We really aren’t creating safe spaces and encouraging diversity if we are still stuck in this patriarchal ditch. Come on, we need to move on.

But, like I said, there’s much here to enjoy on the surface. It’s an acting masterclass from the big three who flip and switch between their characters with ease. They are a joy to watch, genuinely. And Es Devlin’s set is a complete trip – the clever rotating glass box conjures up the critical sense of time never standing still, and the emotive video design behind it flows from cotton plantation to skyscrapers, to trading screens brilliantly.

The issue is, fundamentally, I don’t know what all this effort was for. What is the production supposed to be challenging here? Is this an attack on capitalism – I don’t think so as there is no moral here: Lehman Bank may have collapsed but the family are still billionaires. Is there a challenge on men, masculinity and ambition – again, I don’t think so as, if it was, this play should have done a Hamilton and cast women or Black men in the central three roles to really flip it and show it up for the ludicrousness that this gendered behaviour brings.

Or are we supposed to judge this transfer of beliefs? How this once committed band of Jewish brothers saw their families’ faith in their religion erode through the generations for it to be replaced by capitalism? If it is this – and I have a suspicion it might be – this play does not hit its mark. There is no moral here as, simply, not enough is invested in the collapse of this Lehman Tower of Babel. All that seems to happen here is we are taught that the best option is to make as much money as you can, by whatever means, then sell before the markets collapse. And, frankly, I don’t need to sit through a play to know that this is how the world works.

National Theatre, London, to October 20, 2018.
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Mark Douet.

Production Team:
Director: Sam Mendes
Set Designer: Es Devlin
Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Video Designer: Luke Halls
Lighting Designer: Jon Clark
Music and Sound: Nick Powell

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1 comment

  1. Posted by Adam, at Reply

    Excellent review. Spot on!