On September 15, 2008, the Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy – the devastating end to a story 158 years in the making.
Now, that story – the tale of how a trio of German Jewish immigrants and their descendants transformed a one-room fabric shop in Alabama into the fourth largest investment bank in United States, then brought it all crashing down – arrives at the National Theatre, presented in three chunks over a single evening.
Stefano Massini’s 2015 Italian play has been adapted into English by NT deputy artistic director Ben Power, whose acclaimed condensation of DH Lawrence ran in the Dorfman in 2015. It’s directed by Olivier Award-winner Sam Mendes, and boasts a cast including Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley.
But can that impressive ensemble enervate an Italian account of an American scandal? Has Mendes invested his time in The Lehman Trilogy wisely? Will the critics see a return on their three-hour sitting in the Lyttelton Theatre?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
So, what exactly is Massini’s play about? Is it all sub-prime mortgage bonds and credit default swaps?
“The title of Stefano Massini’s play may give the impression that it will dwell on the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers,” reassures Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard,★★★★). “In fact there’s very little here about flawed methods of modelling risk or the laxity of regulators — a mercy, since they’re important subjects but have the dramatic allure of a Brussels sprout sandwich. Instead, across three and a half hours, Massini takes an unexpectedly romantic view of the making of American capitalism.”
“Massini’s script is a classy affair, storytelling that’s at once sumptuous and spare,” reports Matt Trueman (Variety). “Three actors play three generations of Lehmans: the trio of German Jewish immigrant brothers who founded a fabric shop in Montgomery, Alabama; the two sons who inherited the bank it became; and finally, the grandson who ran a global giant into the ground.”
“Vertiginous falls from grace in the financial industry have been a favourite recent subject in books, films and jumbo-size plays that include Lucy Prebble’s Enron and Ayad Akhtar’s Junk,” contextualises Ben Brantley (New York Times). “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.”
“Through play and levity Massini creates something immensely serious, a quality enhanced by the rhythm, simplicity and spryness of Power’s adaptation,” praises Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★). “It’s a cross section of the roots of capitalism, beautifully adapted, artfully staged and wonderfully acted.”
The Lehman Trilogy is far more than a bone-dry history of the credit crunch then – it’s a history of American capitalism, the critics agree, a slickly told narrative with just three multi-roling actors.
It’s “grown-up theatre at its best” according to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★★), “a nimble juggernaut of a play” for John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★), and for Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) it’s “a lean three-hander in which the hubristic history of American capitalism takes on the deceptive charm of a folk tale.”
“You can see the story in many ways: as a dynastic drama, as a study of the decline and fall of an immigrant Jewish family, as a parable about the dangers of market deregulation,” assesses Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★★). “But, although Power’s adaptation studiously avoids giving us any lectures, it is hard not to see the play as an account of the shifting definition of the American dream.”
“By setting the collapse of this bank in the context of one of America’s founding myths, it valuably invites you to ponder the question whether it was part and parcel of the dream that it would become tainted with hubris,” adds Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★).
“If I have a criticism, it is that the very control of the story-telling undercuts its emotional sweep,” points out Sarah Crompton (What’sOnStage, ★★★★). “But what I love is the way that the script and the performances allow, even in the headlong hurtle of an epic, small, light touches of meaning.”
“By the close you still won’t be able to explain the difference between a credit default swap and a collateralised debt obligation, but you’ll have a fascinating and unexpected new perspective on a story you thought you knew all too well,” concludes Nick Wells (Radio Times, ★★★★). “And you’ll have been thoroughly entertained into the bargain.”
Directors don’t come much starrier than Sam Mendes. An award-strewn career in stage and screen was further bejewelled last year with an Olivier award for his incomparable production of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman at the Royal Court. How well does he chart the choppy waters of investment banking?
He “surprises his audience and, in the process, surpasses himself” according to Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★★). Apparently, he “has never delivered up the kind of sustained, smart, ceaselessly inventive minimalism on view here” before.
“It’s basically a really, really good history lecture – imagine having Simon Russell Beale as your actual teacher – beautifully framed by Mendes’ team,” says Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★). “Es Devlin’s revolving set is a spare, modern office, which serves as a canvas for an epic yarn that’s conveyed by the three actors, a live pianist, and Luke Halls’ gorgeous panoramic projections, which do the heavy lifting in terms of hopping between time periods, from grainy black and white shots of the antebellum south to the sweep of post-9/11 Manhattan.”
“Sam Mendes’s production has a fine sense of rhythm,” observes Hitchings, while Treneman lauds it as “a simple and elegant staging”, Taylor calls it a production of “extraordinary elegance and penetration”, and Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★) labels it a staging “of intelligence, sensitivity and beauty”.
There’s plenty of praise for Devlin’s set, too. It’s “a thing of genius” according to Treneman and “beautiful to look at” according to Billington.
“There’s something about the way Mendes directs these three actors, as if they’re kids locked in an office and just playing around, that makes the piece powerful,” comments Bano. “They’re being silly, having fun, doing impressions of their ancestors. They’re too small and too few to fill the stage. But through these miniatures the full size of their enterprise and their history is made apparent.”
Not all critics are completely sold on Mendes’ direction. “The Lehman Trilogy has the satisfying grip of a great biographical tome,” says Trueman. “But it has the same stubborn linearity too, and, at times, the narrative could use a firm shake. Instead, Mendes’ staging glides glossily on, ever so secure for a story centered on risk. It’s artful, richly layered, elegantly done, but it’s also missing that vital spark of life.”
Most, though, agree with Bano. As Billington asserts, “the joy of Mendes’s impeccable production lies in watching the actors”.
As Wolf points out: “one might argue that Ben Power’s skilful filleting of Stefano Massini’s much-lauded Continental original amounts essentially to an attenuated history lesson delivered by three of the most protean lecturers imaginable.”
Indeed, what lecturers: two-time Olivier award-winner Russell Beale, arguably the greatest British actor alive; Ben Miles, star of Coupling and The Crown on screen and of the RSC’s Wolf Hall adaptation on stage; and three-time Olivier nominee Adam Godley. How does this intimidating trio of history teachers do?
“What makes this 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,” writes Brantley. “Behold them with wonder, humble theatregoer, for they are multitudes.”
“All three performers are magnificent,” explains Taylor. “They narrate their stories and, often very drolly, play all the the rest of the characters in it, including wives and children.”
“The vividness of the entire production springs from the depth and subtlety of the acting,” concurs Crompton. “These are towering performances, flecked with touches of performing genius. With a lift of the collar, or an inclination of the head, the men become women, children, plantation owners, city tycoons.”
“At its heart, the performers feed off each other’s energy brilliantly, moving nimbly from one character to another in the space of a gesture, Beale variously gleeful and avuncular; Godley sweet and sinister; Miles invariably playing sturdier, more forceful personalities,” describes Demetrios Matheou (Hollywood Reporter).
All three actors are showered with praise – they’re “absolutely first class” according to Wells and display “immense skill” according to Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★★) – but it’s Beale that gets most soaked.
“Beale is particularly compelling in his portrait of the disturbingly single-minded (and latterly demon-haunted) Philip Lehman in the second generation (“Pure money! Pure adrenaline!”) but can metamorphose, with the tiniest shifts of gesture, into a demure 19th-century Alabama girl, a doddery rabbi, or a society spouse turned spiteful lush through neglect,” reports Taylor.
“Beale is one of those extraordinary actors who is always himself, but just with a stoop or a narrowed eye or some other slight shift in manner or voice can transform,” says Bano. “He can stand still and speak quietly, and hold the whole theatre in breathless silence.”
Just a bit. With four-star reviews aplenty, and notable five-star ratings from Michael Billington in the Guardian and Ann Treneman in the Times, it’s safe to chalk The Lehman Trilogy up in the National’s 2018 hit column.
Massini’s play has been skilfully filleted and adapted by Power into a three-handed saga that squeezes the jolting journey of American capitalism into the story of a family business gone global, and Mendes’ stylish production is lit up by three extraordinary performances from Beale, Godley and Miles. But then, what were you expecting? Some stars are just bankable.