BWW Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY, National Theatre

BWW Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY, National TheatreThrough one family and one company, Italian playwright Stefano Massini tackles big topics: the development of Western capitalism, the immigrant experience, the American Dream. But this isn't just any family - it's the Lehman Brothers, the collapse of whose banking firm precipitated the 2008 financial crisis.

BWW Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY, National TheatreBen Power's magnificent adaptation (and presumably major filleting - Massini's work has variously appeared as a five-hour play and a novel) keeps this balance of personal and global. Though still three hours-plus, it has the accessibility of a mythic fable, with parallels, recurring motifs, significant dreams, and spellbindingly lyrical - almost, in places, liturgical - rhythms.

Es Devlin's rotating glass cube contains a recognisable sight: the office of a failing firm about to fire its staff, in this case the gleaming Wall Street edifice that is Lehmans in 2008; packing boxes dominate. We then go back to the beginning, as the Bavarian Jewish brothers land in America in the 1840s to set up their first business - an Alabama fabric store.

Sam Mendes's production is deceptively simple: just three actors (Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley) telling the tale of several generations and a teeming cast of characters, using the minimal props of this financial office. It's pure theatre, on an epic scale.

Of course, it takes actors of immense skill to perform this trick, and it soon becomes clear that the form itself is revealing; the traders, too, conjure worlds out of air in their "temple of words", shaping perceptions and selling aspirations.

It also allows for the team to tell the story without the need for constant moral condemnation, since the context shows us the destruction this company will cause. Instead, there's an interesting ambiguity; we can applaud the ambition of the immigrant family rising from nothing, as well as understanding where unchecked ambition leads.

Throughout, the characters describe themselves in the third person - keenly aware of how they're seen by others, and what their role is within any situation. Brother Henry (his name Anglicised by a confused customs agent) is the first to take the voyage to America, and as the oldest, he presumes he's always right. Fiery middle brother Emanuel challenges his authority, and youngest Mayer acts as peacemaker.

Throughout the play, boardroom politics stems from or is reflected by family dynamics, making potentially dry financial matter human and gripping. Both people and ideas are conjured efficiently, often by just one notable characteristic - and always in layman's terms. It's Stones in His Pockets meets The Big Short.

So the company's gradual transformation is tracked by their office signs (the actors writing on glass walls with marker pens), the fast-talking Philip Lehman is likened to a tennis player determinedly keeping the ball in play, a slick train company boss is "a smile surrounded by a man", trading "value" is explained via an umbrella, and the leap of faith that is the stock exchange is a man walking across a tightrope.

It lucidly tracks the development of our current capitalism: from buying for need through to buying as part of how we live; and from simple transactions of goods for currency through to the Lehmans establishing themselves as 'middle men', pure merchants of money.

That 'middle men' title takes on more significant weight as they adopt a studiously neutral position in Alabama, supplying plantation owners simply as a means of increasingly profit margins, and then joining North and South in trade - briefly interrupted by a Civil War that they view only in business terms.

Were they void of morality, or corrupted by opportunity? When Henry steps onto the boat, he's never touched alcohol or gambled; arriving in America, he's a skilled drinker and gambler. There's also a significant Jewish faith that ebbs away with each generation that strays further from their roots - from sitting shiva for a week after a family death through to a hasty three-minute silence.

"New world, new language" echoes through the piece, a change both geographical and generational. Each patriarch both admires and fears their offspring. Godley - demonstrating his extraordinary flexibility - shows Bobbie Lehman refusing to cede to the youth, dancing The Twist right into his grave.

Godley makes Bobbie a transfixing, almost otherworldly figure, and is compelling whether in sober form, as the gentle Mayer, or in scorchingly comic - as a lighting-fast series of potential wives, the argumentative Herbert, or a bawling infant.

Miles, too, is hugely impressive, bringing heft and clarity to the financial giants and poignancy as their children. But Russell Beale is perhaps the standout - holding the stage alone initially as the determined Henry, and then tearing through an array of characters - particularly brilliant as an alarmed rabbi, the consummate New Yorker Philip, a piano-playing Southern belle (mimed, with skilful accuracy, on a box), and a femme fatale divorcée.

The real piano playing is done live by the phenomenal Candida Caldicot, playing a wonderful Nick Powell score, and there are invaluable contributions from Katrina Lindsay, Luke Halls, Jon Clark and Polly Bennett - with, respectively, costumes, video, lighting and movement combining to create this feel of a monochromatic graphic novel come to life as a whirling symphony.

It's the "magical music box called America" - the dream, and the nightmare. The 1929 collapse foreshadows another disaster to come, as does the sickening image of traders falling from the towers. Crucially, the play never loses sight of the people at the heart of the story, even as history comes to judge them.

The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre until 20 October

Photo credit: Mark Douet

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From This Author Marianka Swain