On paper this does not sound particularly promising – a saga of three brothers who move from Bavaria to America to make money by the creation of first a middleman business, then a bank. A saga which runs for over three and a half hours, including two 15 minute intervals.
Eight years ago I saw Enron, the clever drama by Lucy Prebble about a corporate financial crisis. Due to excellent performances and use of music, this was a fantastic show on a dull topic. This is also true of The Lehman Trilogy (Three Brothers, Fathers and Sons, The Immortals), even more so as every single role is played by three actors at the top of their game – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley.
Sam Mendes returns to stage directing, as Ben Power and the company have developed this rather special piece of theatre from an Italian play by Stefano Massini. It starts in the mid-2000s with the collapse of the Lehman Corporation, but we are quickly pulled back to 1844 and the arrival in America of the newly renamed ‘Henry’ Lehman, his ambitions beginning with a small general store (beautifully described by Russell Beale as he gestures to glass walls and office storage boxes and conjures up rows of clothes, hats, ties, jackets and more; just as he described with words like pictures his long voyage between continents).
Surrounded by the plantations of the prosperous South of Montgomery, Alabama, Henry soon welcomes his brothers Emanuel and Mayer across the ocean, and opportunity quickly strikes when they expand to offering material needed by the overseers and owners, then trading in raw cotton itself following a fiery stroke of fate. The expansion of the business in these years of growth is indicated by the movement from one small room to a larger one, each having a black marker sign written up by the actors; over the course of “Three Brothers” this will be utilised a lot, so we can see the past within the present as the saga progresses.
Henry dies, young, of yellow fever, and the Jewish brothers still steeped in their culture of home, grow their beards, shut themselves away, tear their clothing, and mourn – but time moves on, Mayer marries, then so does Emanuel (Babette and Pauline are depicted brilliantly by Russell Beale and Godley, with just a change of vocal pitch and characterisation). Their motivation moves from doing good for their community to the movement and acquisition of money – the Civil War finally forcing an uproot to the prosperous shores of New York and the North.
“Fathers and Sons” brings in the next generation, the precocious Philip, who can recite every city his family does business with, and who has an eye for the railroads, and Herbert, who starts as a playful toddler and ends as the Governor of New York. There are other children quickly enumerated but discarded from the narrative, which races through the last years of the 19th century, into the 20th, and up to the fateful day of the Wall Street Crash.
Philip has himself found a wife during this time, but in his analytical mind he only looks for the material advantages, as an amusing vignette demonstrates, as girls are assessed against his twenty-point list for the perfect mate. He also gains an acquaintance who climbs as high as he does, the high wire artist (Russell Beale, again, who also plays the doddery Rabbi who fights on matters of Biblical doctrine with young Herbert) who topples from his perch the day the markets collapse.
“The Immortals” starts with the suicide of stockbrokers, and the cunning of the now mature Philip and his son, Bobbie, who invest in the future – first, transportation, then the movies and television. Bobbie likes the horses, and lives to win, even capturing the divorced Ruth Lamar, who sees the dollar signs within her new husband’s heart. By the time the trading floors open under the custodianship of the uncouth Lew Glucksman (Miles, again), we are a long way from Henry Lehman’s fabrics and suits shop of a hundred years before.
It is a tribute to the three actors involved, and their director and set designer (Es Devlin) that they create this wide variety of characters without any costume changes, and with the use of a minimum of props – those office storage boxes and glass walls, a revolving set, some chairs and a table, a bunch of flowers, a marker pen.
There is a piano, which leads to one amusing scene courtesy of Russell Beale’s Babette miming to Beethoven, Mozart, and ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’. There are squawling children who grow to run the Lehman empire when the last family member has been laid to rest (with no mourning, no tearing of clothes, or closing of business). And, finally, we return to the boardroom at the closure of the Corporation on that last day.
A very funny, perceptive, engrossing and well-written piece, the play moves quickly and is never dull. There is one wickedly amusing bit about progress and music which leads to the death of one of the characters, but got one of the best laughs of the afternoon. Ultimately this is a family saga for which you might be advised to do some background reading (and the programme has a useful chronology and family tree), but don’t let that stop you going – if you can get a ticket!
The Lehman Trilogy runs until the 20th October 2018, in repertory. Tickets have sold out, but some may become available through Friday Rush or Day Ticket schemes, please see https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-lehman-trilogy for more details.