The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre) - Review

The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre) - Review
It’s been just four years since the director-actor partnership of Sam Mendes and Simon Russell-Beale took to the stage at the National Theatre in 2014’s King Lear. Now they reunite, swapping Lear’s crown for sub-prime mortgage bonds and credit default swaps in The Lehman Trilogy – Ben Power’s English language adaptation of Stefano Massini’s Italian powerhouse of a play which has been sweeping across Europe in the past few years. Initially, the story of Lehman Brothers, the company which dramatically crashed into bankruptcy and triggered the 2008 financial crash, doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a three-hour, three-man, three-act play on a huge London stage. But Mendes and his cast, Russell-Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles, have set a new gold standard, creating a production packed with vibrant characters, ridiculous humour and a hefty emotional punch.

“Russell-Beale gives a jaw-dropping and mesmerizing performance”

Yet, perhaps this play isn’t about banking at all. The play opens in 1844 as young Bavarian Henry Lehman arrives on the shores of America dreaming of a better life. Upon the opening of their fabric shop, we see the gradual morphing of their business through the centuries, and generations, from family fabric business to behemoth twenty-first-century stockbrokers who changed the modern financial landscape. However, rather than focusing on the technicalities of their progression and money-making methods, Massini’s script reveals the personal lives of the Lehmans, placing family and everything it entails front and centre. Hence, this story is not one of cut-throat professional advancement, but one of love, loss, success, failure and everything that falls in between. The form of the script is particularly fascinating. Russell-Beale, Godwin and Miles do not adopt naturalistic characters but rather all act as ‘storytellers’, reciting continuous, unrelenting narrative to the audience whilst adopting many different characters through vocal dexterity and intense physicality. It’s a highly slick form of narrative theatre, a style developed in Italy in the late twentieth century, but often found in Britain in low-budget or Fringe theatre due to its almost unlimited possibilities. However here, Massini’s writing (and Power’s adaptation) takes the style to new, unprecedented heights. The script becomes almost lyrical with a constant rhythm, textual richness and gorgeous use of repeated vocal refrains to aid characterisation, humour or emotion. It’s a mammoth task for three actors to learn three hours of constant dialogue but in its best moments, The Lehman Trilogy is completely captivating, rapidly powering through the years, whilst injecting every twist and turn with a relatable humanity.

“a masterclass in direction”

However, such an intense script demands a remarkable cast. It is safe to say that Russell-Beale, Godley and Miles rise to the challenge. All three strike different tones which work in harmony without fault through all three acts as they construct a story through jigsaw pieces of exposition delivered by characters (and storytellers) supporting, opposing and appreciating one another. Russell-Beale particularly shines, showing immense versatility from the stern Henry Lehman to a hilarious, flirty wife Babetta Lehman to old, paranoid Phillip Lehman. The ability to switch from intense anger to physical comedy to paralyzing fear at the click of a finger is an extraordinary demand, but Russell-Beale gives a jaw-dropping and mesmerizing performance. That is not to undermine the success of Godley and Miles. Truly, this is an ensemble piece, and both give superb performances, matching Russell-Beale’s versatility and pulling off every moment which a swing in their step and a twinkle in their eye. For Sam Mendes, it seemed there was no topping his previous directorial effort of The Ferryman, which won him his second (but surely not last) Olivier award. But here, Mendes is at his very best, giving a masterclass in direction and, in this reviewer’s opinion, surpassing his work on The Ferryman. The staging becomes almost dancelike as the cast move almost nonstop around a rotating office moving, using, and reusing bank boxes as props and elements of scenery. Initially, the style seems a little overwhelming, but soon as the movement matches the rhythm of the text, it settles into a luscious collaboration of text, movement and physicality, all working in unison with mechanical precision. And yet despite all the unending movement, occasionally the production has moments of stillness in symmetrical blocking or physicality in rich moments of emotion. It gives the production a real visual flair, elevating the production from a great script with great actors to a fully cohesive, engrossing production. The Lehman Trilogy is, without a doubt, the latest hit from the National Theatre. Although it may be an unlikely story for a narrative play, Power and Massini’s script combines with extraordinary performances and genius direction to create a three-hour mesmerizing masterpiece.

5/5

Image: Mark Douet
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