Despite opening in London’s West End first, and having been written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini, “The Lehman Trilogy” is ultimately a New York saga.
“It’s an American story,” says set designer Es Devlin, who has created a slowly rotating masterpiece: an 800-square-foot glass box that sits at the center of the stage, for the tale of the demise of the Lehman brothers, which bows Oct. 14 at the Nederland Theatre. “It treats the rise and fall of Western capitalism in three hours with three actors and a piano dancing around this revolving sculpture,” says Devlin.
New York was always going to drive Devlin’s design, and working alongside the play’s director, Sam Mendes, added what she calls a “filmic aspect” to everything. “You could turn the turning box as a camera move in the way there’s the continuous first-person camera move in ‘1917,’” she says, referring to Mendes’ 2019 film, shot by Roger Deakins, who won an Oscar for his efforts.
The constant movement of the sculpture in the play helps to propel theater audiences through almost two centuries and different locations in the same way a director’s camera does in film — culminating in the financial meltdown of 2008. A video projection charts the rise of brothers Mayer Lehman (Adam Godley), Emanuel Lehman (Adrian Lester) and Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale) from rural Alabama to New York and their Wall Street tower. “The glass box is almost like a pair of glasses, and you see New York rise in front of you, growing throughout the century,” Devlin explains of how the projection backdrops the centerpiece.
While working on the design, Devlin was conscious of Massini’s original text. Office, tables and chairs are very much part of the set, but Devlin describes the glass box as an instrument for the actors to play.
Her palette for the show is what the set designer calls “the color of memory. It’s what we associate with black-and-white photographs — something that happened in the generations before us.” A black office chair, a chrome lamp, the corporate banking office with a lone brown leather briefcase: “Those are objects that help transport us.”
However, there are distinct moments when the set is accented with crimson during vivid nightmare sequences that punctuate the play. “It’s almost as if the dreams are ancestrally passed from generation to generation. Each of these Lehman generations inherits not only the business but the nightmares,” says Devlin. In those moments, she uses reds or oranges, which are strategically placed as the world of the Lehman brothers slowly crumbles.