Stefano Massini: The Lehman Trilogy, National Theatre / Piccadilly Theatre, London (Director: Sam Mendes)
By Sascha Krieger
Stefano Massini’s play is a massive effort: it attempts to do no less than to transform the rise and fall of a Jewish immigrants‘ business empire into a panoramic painting of American capitalism, coupled with a lesson in Jewish consciousness. No surprise that it takes on the form of an epic, a narrative spanning almost two centuries and various generations, in which the protagonists are tossed among the waves of time, complete with an at times almost chant like language, full of repetitions and enumerations, clearly schooled in Homer, individuals in the grip of fate – but, here the comparison ends, a fate at least partly created by them. Sam Mendes‘ production starts with the end: a janitor cleans out a conference room full of cardboard boxes and closes behind him. The Lehman Brothers story has ended, the bank being the most prominent victim – and perpetrator – of the 2008 financial crisis. And then it begins again: an old man dressed in mid-1800s clothes, enters the glass cubicle, the panoramic background changes from present day New York to the sea on which Hayum Lehman, soon to be called Henry arrived. Simon Russell Beale plays the company’s founder, soon to be joined by Ben Miles as Emanuel and Adam Godley as Mayer.
Together they tell their story, accompanied by a sole piano and changing backdrops, telling the story of a suit and fabric store that becomes a raw cotton business before trading in everything that sells, ultimately becoming a bank. The signs change, some of them drawn with a pen on the glass, the business stays the same: survive by selling people what they want and making them want these things in the first place. The three are less characters than storytellers, creating their ever changing worlds with their words. Often they look and point and reach into an unseen distance that can be future or past or dream, vision, memory. They all become one as the stage (set design: Es Devlin) rotates, the story going in circles as disasters – the Civil War, the Great Depression – strike, the family business is re-invented as are the actors: Beale’s patriarchal Henry becomes the bustling Philip, Miles‘ brawny Emanuel turns into the rebellious Herbert and ultimately the ruthless trader Glucksman, Godley’s reasonable Mayer is transformed into the nervous Bobby. The trio also plays those they meet and need along their journey, the wives and partners and customers and those who will replace the family on the downward spiral leading to the end that is the beginning.
Atmospherically tight, observing every chance for, sometimes satirical humour, the threesome together with exquisite and suggestive lighting and the fleeting panoramic changes draw the audience into a dream that becomes a nightmare and ends up where it began. With nothing, the whole world open. The family’s Jewishness is a key element – its loss a symbol of its losing its ways, as well as America’s. When a family member dies, they first mourn for a week, later for three days, t the end for three minutes. The production charts this journey with much attention to detail: from the first generation’s ritualistic traditionalism to the next wave’s business-like reasoning last member’s nervous out-of-placeness and the ruthless efficiency of those who finish the story. And yet, things always remain the same: the attempts to go with the times, top survive, an essentially Jewish experience, which is reproduced and succeeds again and again – until it doesn’t. The superb production ois an epic poem, a long dream with a rude awakening, a small part of the everlasting human and particularly Jewish journey for a home, a place, a chance to survive. And a study in the powers of capitalism to re-invent itself on the bodies of those it sacrifices. The Lehmans may be gone but the system they helped create persists. In this city’s City and all over the world. A dream? A nightmare? Reality? All of it in a circle of life that comes down to a circle of money.