In Judaism, death is followed by the sitting of shiva. For seven days, seated mourners reflect on their loss. The ritual recurs throughout “The Lehman Trilogy,” playwright Steffano Massini’s sweeping history of Lehman Brothers, the small family firm that became one of the world’s biggest banks, up until the financial crash of 2008. Each time a Lehman passes away, the clan gather in remembrance to recite the Kaddish. “The Lehman Trilogy,” directed at the National Theatre by Sam Mendes, marks the company’s collapse in a similar way — we sit and reflect on its rise and demise. It is, in the end, a parable for our times.
Massini’s script is a classy affair, storytelling that’s at once sumptuous and spare. 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. Amongst many things, in both content and form, it’s a celebration of the collective.
In the glass walls of Lehman HQ, on the eve of its fall, three figures in funereal black suits stalk the boardroom. In 1844, Haim “Henry” Lehman (Simon Russell Beale) steps off the boat in brand new shoes and out into the “music box” of New York. By the time his two siblings arrive — expansionist Emmanuel (Ben Miles) and equanimous Mayer (Adam Godley) — he’s established a textile shop in the South. Charting its slow-burn beginnings, Massini shows how, time and again, with a little ingenuity, calamity creates opportunity. Plantation fires that should have sunk the shop lead them to make loans and cash in on raw cotton. The Civil War affords the chance to oversee a rebuild. It’s clear Lehman Brothers was forged out of America’s despair.
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Even so, Massini gives capitalism the credit it’s due. As the Lehmans go with the cashflow, repainting their sign each time their model shifts, their investments do good: they fund railways, carve out the Panama Canal. On an upstage cyclorama, New York’s skyscrapers sprout like steel sunflowers as modern America takes bloom. Lehman Brothers does too, steered by the calculated risks of Emmanuel’s spectacled son Philip. “If you want to make money,” his motto runs, “you need to find the simple things.” The things everyone wants and needs.
Only his own son and successor Bobby (Godley, in sunglasses, plays him like a snake) is steeped in such high society he loses sight of the ground. Though he steers a course through the Wall Street crash, the gunshots of stockbroker suicides ringing round the stage, he also steers Lehmans towards the freewheeling, risk-taking global bank it became. The company died 40 years after he did.
In Massini’s hands, Lehman’s history is as much a Frankenstein myth, a monster evading its makers’ control, as the decline and fall of an ever-expanding empire that can only cave in. It’s every history cycle where one generation topples the next, “The Godfather” with middlemen in place of the mob. They too make offers that can’t be refused.
We know the shape of this story, we know how it ends, but it’s the details that give this history its heft. On top of clear-sighted financial analogies, Massini never lets an irony pass us by: a German immigrant firm funding World War II, an investor in growth that outgrows itself. The pairings are eloquent. Russell Beale is instinctive as Henry, then exacting as Philip. Ben Miles strong-arms deals as Emmanuel before becoming his politician nephew, an advocate of reform. Godley’s contemplative Mayer fades into reckless Bobby, his features switching from sanguinity to a sneer. All fine caricaturists (none more so than Russell Beale), they sketch out dozens of supporting characters — from wailing toddlers to haughty wives — to sprinkle the whole with humor.
Since its Milan premiere in 2015, Massini’s script has been asset-stripped down: 4½ hours condensed closer to three. Its masterstroke, underscored by Ben Power’s translation, is letting the story accelerate as the world gathers speed. If it starts steadily, laying the foundations of the Lehman siblings setting up shop with exacting detail, it ends with the tailspin of the trading floor: deals done in split-seconds, right round the clock, as stock prices skyrocket and plunge into freefall. As three Lehmans do the twist, watching their profits spiral and soar, Es Devlin’s set design revolves faster and faster, Luke Halls’ video backdrop spins backwards into a blur and Nick Powell’s piano score picks up its pace, sharpening into a jittery staccato. It’s beyond dizzying; it’s positively sea-sickening.
Like banks, however, some plays are simply too big to fail. “The Lehman Trilogy” succeeds, in large part, because of its scope. Unfolding a century and a half of seismic change, not just for the company but for the country at large, “The Lehman Trilogy” has the satisfying grip of a great biographical tome. 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. Massini’s script is poor theatre, a story built out of nothing. Mendes’ high-end staging is most certainly not. It’s artful, richly layered, elegantly done, but it’s also missing that vital spark of life. Say a kaddish, but then think on.