Sam Mendes’ production of The Lehman Trilogy at Britain’s National Theatre begins where most people know it will end, with files being removed from recently emptied offices of glass, steel, plastic and neon lights while offstage voices murmur about impending bankruptcy.
It’s clearly 2008, when one of the greatest of all American banks collapsed, precipitating the global financial crisis whose ripples are with us still. But the moment passes, leaving the audience with an obvious question. How, why did such a disaster occur?
The Italian dramatist Stefano Massini’s play—which opened in London on Thursday night—comes in three acts, and lasts three-and-a-half fact-packed hours, but doesn’t come up with a full and adequate answer. Its thesis is simple, some might say simplistic.
In 160-odd years an enterprise that began with heart, soul and plenty of good business sense evolved into a heartless, soulless and ultimately senseless money-making machine. Lehman Brothers more or less committed fiscal suicide.
So does Es Devlin’s office set – which intermittently rotates to a background variously evoking southern plantations and a changing New York City – teem with merchants, traders, tycoons and Wall Street desperadoes?
Far from it. Mendes, Massini and Massini’s British adaptor, Ben Power, are deep into minimalism. Three performers, and only three, act out everything in Lehman Brothers’ turbulent history, 1844 to 2008.
Fortunately, they are among Britain’s best. Simon Russell Beale is Henry Lehman, the German Jew who arrives in what a sometimes florid text calls “the magical music box called America” with little but a battered suitcase and a look of wary wonder.
Ben Miles, who follows, is his sleeker, smoother younger brother, Emanuel. Adam Godley, the last and youngest of the siblings to leave their native Bavaria, is Mayer, the geek who quietly moderates and reconciles his occasionally quarrelsome elders.
Fine, but why must they spend the entire evening in their original frock coats, ties and waistcoats? They are dressed in period black whether they’re embodying their descendants, their clients, even their women, endlessly talking about themselves and their characters in the third person.
This wearies. One longs for a bit of the color which the production’s creators have gone out of their way to avoid. Did Henry, who died young of yellow fever, not even have a red handkerchief to stem his sneezes? The three actors certainly possess and display charisma, versatility and skill, but at times it’s as if a trio of morticians is describing the slow demise of a favorite client.
The Lehman story begins with the brothers in their tiny store in Montgomery, Alabama, selling fabric and cheap suits while themselves huddled in a three-room apartment where they wash with whale oil as cheap soap.
Then they start selling raw cotton to factories in the north, a business that grows and grows. With their headquarters gradually moved to lower Manhattan, they somehow survive the fire that destroys some of Alabama’s plantations, and even the Civil War. The remaining brothers, Emanuel and Mayer, are enterprising and resilient, the very embodiment of the American dream.
But then Emanuel begins to get nightmares and retreat into silence, the result of the growing influence and power of his son, Philip.
As played by Russell Beale this Lehman is unsmiling, curt, interested only in “rows and rows of zeroes,” meaning millions and more millions of dollars. Lehman Brothers becomes a bank and a hugely successful one, investing in railroads, oil fields, tobacco, automobiles and the Panama Canal.
Enter Mayer’s precocious son, Herbert, giving us an episode in which he asks an appalled rabbi why God went to the trouble of plaguing Egypt with locusts, boils, darkness and infant deaths when he could simply have killed the Pharoah.
It’s an entertaining little scene which, however, serves to expose how little lightness and fun there is elsewhere in this very long three-parter.
We don’t hear enough of Herbert who, though you’d scarcely know it, became a famously liberal governor of New York and its representative in the U.S. Senate. And maybe we could hear more about Philip’s son, Bobbie, an art collector and philanthropist who was a member of the board from 1925 to 1969.
The quirks and quiddities of character aren’t the play’s strengths. Nor, indeed, are important moments in its history. The Great Depression is initially evoked by actors holding pistols to their heads to the sound of bangs backstage, but it’s not at all clear how the Lehmans managed to steer their way through it.
The company’s subsequent history is even more sketchily evoked. It seems that it does well with war, armaments and post-war rebuilding. At any rate, Bobbie is able to say “we’ll be everywhere for all eternity”, dominating the Earth as well as America.
But we all recognize hubris when we hear it, and punishment duly comes, mainly during the watch and at the behest of some of the outsiders who replace family members in the later 20th century: Lewis Glucksman, famous for his short temper, and Richard “Gorilla” Fuld, named by Condé Nast's Portfolio magazine as the worst American CEO of all time.
They come and all too quickly go, leaving it less than clear why Lehman so spectacularly failed. I didn’t hear one word about short selling or even about the sub-prime mortgages widely blamed for the financial crisis and crash of 2007 and 2008.
One moment the actors are jokily doing the twist, presumably to demonstrate the energy and optimism they believe will carry them to nirvana. The next a phalanx of supernumaries crowds onstage to clear away what’s left of the files containing the company’s chequered history. And that’s that.
Last night the audience rose to its feet, perhaps to acknowledge the 200-minute marathon the three actors had so gamely run. I’m afraid I stayed in my seat, admiring them but also feeling I’d learned more about the triumphs and tribulations of Lehman from an erudite program note and a flip through Wikipedia, a journey that took me maybe ten minutes.
Yes, The Lehman Trilogy is a brave and, for a British theater, unusual foray into American economics. It’s also quite an ordeal.
The Lehman Trilogy is at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1, until October 20. Book here.