It’s a familiar story of bucks to bankruptcy, but this one is on a scale that shook the financial world to its core and affected ordinary mortals across the globe. Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy has been given a Sam Mendes and Ben Power makeover at the National Theatre, with Simon Russell Beale (King Lear at the National, Penny Dreadful), Ben Miles (Apple Tree Yard) and Adam Godley (Breaking Bad) holding the fort on-stage. 163 years of history unfold in an epic 3 hours and 20 minutes during which time American dreams are made and collapse with a resounding crash amidst thunderous London applause.
September 11, 1844 was the day 23-year-old Hayum Lehmann, son of a Bavarian cattle merchant landed in the “magical musical box” that was America and was re-born as Henry Lehman. He left Germany a teetotal and a man of morals and arrived in America a drinker and a champion at the card table. He settled in Dixie’s Montgomery, Alabama where he opened a dry goods store. Three years later, his brother Emanuel arrived, followed by the youngest sibling, Mayer in 1850.
Henry initially made a fair living through the cotton trade, turning tragic events that came his way into profit. He befriended the antebellum cotton farmers and became a highly skilled and successful middleman. As the Civil War threatened to dismantle their fortunes, the brothers soldiered on, eventually ending up as Lehman Brothers and running the “shameless and sublime” New York City which was “always more, always better.” The sun never seemed to set on the Lehman Brothers empire – and yet, the day of reckoning was coming, the day when the sky turned black: September 15, 2008.
The evening at the National Theatre seems to pass through time in the blink of an eye. It’s not just the acting by the three black-clad titans which is magnificent: the staging shows design prowess. A glass box takes centre-stage, with the Lehman ghosts walking through time and place. The titanic digital backdrop seems to gobble up the entire Lyttleton Theatre stage. It’s used to represent the ocean across which the young Lehman traversed to get to his America, later a field of flame and smoke in Montgomery when the plantations are on fire, then a New York cityscape and Wall Street, where “men walk on air.”
As the delicate sound of a solo pianist accompanies the play in a melancholic journey through the decades, all eyes are on the formidable three, whose performances will surely be remembered for years to come. Will the play be criticised for its nostalgic undertones? Perhaps. But like Gatsby, Lehman simply believed in that green light, when “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.”
The Lehman Trilogy is on until 20 October. Limited tickets.
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