Paul T Davies reviews Ben Power’s adaptation of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy now playing at the National Theatre.
The Lehman Trilogy.
The National Theatre.
12 July 2018
The Lehman Brothers rise to global power and its bankruptcy and collapse is an epic story. Adapted from Stefano Massini’s play by Ben Power, three actors play the brothers, their sons and grandsons, plus all other characters. What should be an intimate, small studio piece is given magnificence by Es Devlin’s set, filling the Lyttleton stage with a shifting canopy of backdrops that takes us from humble beginnings in Alabama to the stock market of New York City. And yet, as the three and half hours running time clocks up, the revolving set quickly becomes tedious and time and time again we feel we are being taken back to the same point, and the evening becomes, overall, dull.
Simon Russell Beale, in my eyes, is incapable of giving a poor performance, and here he is his usual excellent self as Henry Lehman, with a strong performance as the ambitious son Phillip. Ben Miles and Adam Godley also excel the three work together very well. Godley, in particular, impressive as the artistic leaning Bobbie Lehman, the last of the brothers. They play children and women, always guaranteed to get a strong laugh from the National audience, and the passing of time is handled well. Yet, beyond the acting, Sam Mendes’s production is slick, cool, and emotionally empty. Everything is told through description, we know when an character is standing up to pour a glass of water because we watch an actor standing up to pour a glass of water as another actor tells us that the character is standing up to pour a glass of water. Each generation has a nightmare, all involving building towers that come crashing down, and by the third dream, (one in each act); we can almost script it ourselves. The first act sets out its stall and it never changes as the following two acts progress.
The play is sympathetic to the Lehman brothers throughout, Bobbie being the last family member heading the company to die in 1969. The subsequent destruction of the company is down to those who led the company into the subprime mortgage lending crisis that led to the global financial crash of 2008. This may be true, but the brothers invested in, among other things, nuclear arms, and we never see the effect of the company’s decisions on ordinary people, who lost everything. It feels that there is a jugular there that the play fails to go for. There is some excellent staging but, unlike the recurring nightmare, the dramatic stakes are not raised high enough to thrill or have a sense of risk, as admirable and enjoyable as the acting is.