This is an incredible piece of theatre , if possible not to be missed – a breathtaking, exceptional production , magnificently directed by Sam Mendes , superbly staged and with three sensational bravura performances by Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles .
It is an epic, sweeping family saga , adapted by Ben Power from Stefano Massini’s “epic poem” of a nine-hour original Italian text , telling the story of a family and a company that changed the world. We follow the lives of the Lehman Brothers, their sons and grandsons and the American Dream.
The story begins on a cold September morning in 1844 when a young man from Bavaria arrives in America and becomes known as Henry Lehman. Eventually he is joined by his two brothers Mayer and Emmanuel and an American epic begins. We see how the company starts with a fabric store in Alabama and they became cotton barons, diversify into coffee and the railways , survived the American Civil War and the 1929 Wall St crash leading to the Great Depression , both world wars, expand into computers and financial trading and yet 163 years later, in 2008, the firm they had established – Lehman Brothers – spectacularly collapsed into bankruptcy, and triggered the largest financial crisis in history leading to the GFC.
The set designed by Es Devlin is a revolving, transparent cube of a contemporary office with a harsh table and chairs and umpteen boxes. Projections are used for glorious effect with for example the New York skyline, or showing the devastation of the cotton fields and the lighting design by Jon Clark.
The three actors brilliantly play a varied assortment of characters – brothers, fathers, sons , governors , CEOS , young children , old rabbis and wives for example.
They mostly speak in the third person, narrating, with some dialogue. Some aspects of the story are jumped over or somewhat whitewashed – the KKK and slavery are mentioned, but the brutality and injustices of the South that help the Lehmans create their empire are rather glossed over (as is their involvement in defence force armament in WW11).
Beale is extraordinary. He begins as the senior of the three founding brothers, arrogant, determined, driven Henry Lehman,‘who is always right’ and morphs into a coquettish divorcee, a creaky rabbi and a delicate balanced tightrope walker among other characters including Pete Peterson, the first non-Lehman president of the business. His opening monologue of the first play is powerful and impressive and hooks you from the start. As terrifyingly precocious maths wiz bespectacled Philip Lehman, he has a list of various attributes he assesses potential brides on, awarding them various points in a humorous yet ironic scene.
Godley is just as amazing. First he portrays Mayer, the patronised youngest of the Lehman brothers who acts as a buffer between them and later transforms by donning snazzy dark glasses, into the lizard like, extremely ambitious Bobbie. His ‘dance of death’ is just one of many highlights. Meanwhile , he also portrays everything from a fractious, screaming young child to a blushing bride.
As the middle brother Emmanuel, Miles generally has an aura of elegant, unruffled serenity but is also somewhat reckless and eventually reveals the recalcitrance of later members of the Lehman clan and the anger of tempestuous traders.
We see how as they grow their business from a single fabric store to a broker company, which morphs into a bank and then to a corporation, perilous nightmares about trains, weighty burdens, and the tower of Babel haunt the men, prophesying doom. There’s also a parallel between the rise of their business empire and the loss of their Jewish faith. The week-long Jewish mourning ritual, sitting shiva, takes the required days for Henry, as back in Bavaria, but for the family’s descendants can take just minutes.
An empathetic ‘fourth character’ in the trilogy is Nick Powell’s thoughtful piano score performed live by Candida Caldicott.
The production is gripping, compelling , visually stunning , splendidly acted and a stunning piece of theatre. It can be viewed as a history of western capitalism , a sweeping family saga or indeed a parable about greed and the dangers of the financial market.
Running time – allow 4 hours including two intervals
The NT Live Lehman Trilogy screenings are at selected cinemas from 31 August 2019