It’s imaginary. That’s the genius of Sam Mendes’ staging of this epic play, charting the history of the Lehman brothers, the three German Jewish migrants who founded the impossibly large banking firm that precipitated the 2008 financial crisis.
Ben Power’s adaptation of Stefano Massini’s 2013 play features only three actors – Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles. They play the three original Lehman brothers, arriving in America in the 19th century – Henry, Emanuel and Mayer – and remain as them, clad in black frock coats, even as they inhabit the other characters that people the story. They narrate their own family saga. They describe situations and scenes and actions without creating them. Like the unimaginable amounts of money that flowed in and out of the Lehman brothers’ company every split second, it’s all imaginary.
Split into three sections, covering 150 years of American history, with live piano accompaniment throughout, the piece consists of a number of interlinked stories. There’s the immigrant story, for one: how America’s openness allowed the Lehmans to live and flourish. But as we watch Henry, Emanuel and Mayer expand their business from fabrics to cotton to coal to coffee to pure money, that optimistic narrative is tempered.
Es Devlin’s sleek 21st century office set, backed by Luke Halls’ superb video on a cyclorama curling around the back of the stage, makes it apparent that things will go wrong. There’s only one way a business like this can end: at some point it will fail. The future is present throughout. There are constant reminders, too, that their profit was based on exploitation from the beginning – their earliest gains came from cotton plantations.
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. He can stand still and speak quietly, and hold the whole theatre in breathless silence.
Miles and Godley are also fantastic, like the straight man and the comic relief. Miles is a solid, serious presence and there’s some of the casual confidence in him that goes with being a banker. Godley is more unpredictable, his eyes full of mischief – he provides many of the sillier moments.
There’s no great revelation here but there’s something about the way Mendes directs these three actors, like they’re kids locked in an office and just playing around, that makes the piece powerful. 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. Through play and levity Massini creates something immensely serious, a quality enhanced by the rhythm, simplicity and spryness of Power’s adaptation.
It’s a cross section of the roots of capitalism, beautifully adapted, artfully staged and wonderfully acted. But with the dream team of Beale, Power and Mendes, how could it ever have gone wrong? Then again, that’s what they said about the Lehmans.