Review: ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ Is a Transfixing Epic of Riches and Ruin

LONDON — The power of three is multiplied into infinity in “The Lehman Trilogy,” the transfixing saga of family and finance that opened Thursday night at the National Theater here. This sprawling yet devastatingly efficient production begins as the tale of three brothers, Lehman by name, Bavarian Jewish immigrants to the United States.

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Ben Brantley
, New York Times

LONDON — The power of three is multiplied into infinity in “The Lehman Trilogy,” the transfixing saga of family and finance that opened Thursday night at the National Theater here. This sprawling yet devastatingly efficient production begins as the tale of three brothers, Lehman by name, Bavarian Jewish immigrants to the United States.

The show is also divided into three parts, each of which (according to my watch) lasts a precise hour, with an additional 30 minutes of combined intermissions. It is set among the restlessly shifting American landscape of three different centuries, and its characters are shaken by three monumental wars.

But what makes this work a ticket worth cashing in your gilt-edged securities for are its three extraordinary actors, who are the sole occupants of the vast Lyttelton stage for nearly 180 minutes. They are Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley. Behold them with wonder, humble theatergoer, for they are multitudes.

Written by the Italian dramatist Stefano Massini, “The Lehman Trilogy” was staged in Paris (in 2013) and Milan (in 2015), where it clocked in at five hours. Ben Power has done the astute, hypnotically cadenced English adaptation, and it has been directed with luxuriant austerity by the celebrated stage and film director Sam Mendes.

The story spun here is indeed that of the clan whose name became a byword for world-shattering Wall Street hubris in 2008, when the mighty firm of Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.

Vertiginous falls from grace in the financial industry have been a favorite recent subject in books (“Too Big to Fail”), films (“Margin Call,” “The Big Short”) and jumbo-size plays that include Lucy Prebble’s “Enron” and Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk.” What sets “The Lehman Trilogy” apart is its exceptional concentration of narrative simplicity and depth, in which minimal resources seem to expand into unlimited riches.

Unlike Massini’s original version, the current “Trilogy” begins on the eve of Lehman Brothers’ end, with a fleeting glimpse of a vast, desolate office that is clearly of the 21st century. Es Devlin’s excellent contemporary set — a rotating, glass-walled cubicle furnished largely by packing crates — will turn out to be both a time machine and a blank slate to be scrawled upon, filled in and erased by its inhabitants.

Without a whit of cumbersome scenery or signaling, the play slips from the 21st century into 1844, when a young German Jew arrives in the harbor of New York City. His name is Henry Lehman, or it will be before he is through Customs, and he is embodied by Beale, arguably the greatest classical actor of the present-day London stage, with a heart-stirring air of contemplative awe.

Henry will soon set up shop, a general store specializing in cotton goods, in Montgomery, Alabama, where he is joined by his younger brothers, Emanuel (Miles) and Mayer (Godley). Though the original siblings will have died long before the play ends, they will always be with us, as guides and observers throughout the multigenerational story of expansion, acquisition and loss that follows.

Here is Henry, speaking in the play’s opening minutes: “He took a deep breath and walking quickly, despite not knowing where to go, like so many others he stepped into the magical music box called America.” It is a sentence that gives you fair warning of the script’s language.

The performers describe their characters, their settings and their histories in the third person. Replete with the embroidery of epithets and metaphors, their accounts suggest the E.L. Doctorow of “Ragtime” channeling the incantatory verse of Homer. Enhanced by the varying tempo of a lone piano accompaniment, it is a style that might be called epic picturesque. By rights, it should pall quickly.

Instead, you are pulled you into its unceasing tidal sweep, as tickled as a toddler with a bedtime story that promises endless permutations. That is partly because the play’s performers, under Mendes’ impeccably paced direction, are so inventively mutable.

Though never stepping out of Katrina Lindsay’s original costumes — sharply tailored suits in shades of gray that bring to mind daguerreotype family portraits — the brothers Lehman transform themselves into an innumerable host of others. These include their descendants, spouses, colleagues, rivals and employees during more than 160 years.

Their metamorphoses are achieved with little excessive flourish. A cocked hip, a turned collar, a squint of the eyes, a stretched vowel: These transformations are in themselves pure pleasure, recalling pinnacle story-theater productions like the Royal Shakespeare Company’s fabled “Nicholas Nickleby.”

For instance, Beale, barrel-shaped and bearded, is most seductive as both a demure 19th-century Southern miss and a worldly 20th-century divorcée. Godley, in turn, becomes every single one of the dozen matrimonial candidates auditioned by Philip Lehman (Beale), son of Emanuel. (And wait until you see Godley’s Robert Lehman literally dance himself to death.) Miles (Cromwell in the stage version of “Wolf Hall”) incarnates an entire melting pot of upwardly mobile Americans.

What is most remarkable about the performances, though, is how the actors manage to suggest they are both inside and on top of their characters at all times. That dichotomy is essential to sustaining the mystical omniscience of a play that draws heavily from biblical scripture and Jewish ritual. The plagues of Egypt are invoked for the third act; so, for a boxes-toppling climax, is the Tower of Babel.

And, yes, “The Lehman Trilogy” could be described as a religious parable of reckoning. Past, present and future are coterminous here, a sense underscored by Jon Clark’s lighting and Luke Halls’ video projections, which summon an eternal Manhattan that is equal parts steel and shadow.

The word “nothing” echoes throughout. Nothing is what the Lehman brothers say they come from; nothing is finally what is left of all they have achieved. That is what happens when money floats into the ether of latter-day Wall Street, unmoored by connection to substance.

But “The Lehman Trilogy” is unlikely to leave anyone who sees it in a nihilistic frame of mind. What you have witnessed, after all, is the creation of a whole, vastly populated, constantly changing world of infinitely renewable resources.

“The Lehman Trilogy” runs through Oct. 20 at the National Theater, London; nationaltheatre.org.uk. Running time 3 hours 30 minutes.

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