Money changes everything

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It’s probably as well to say this upfront: Stefano Massini‘s The Lehman Trilogy, at least as adapted into English by Ben Power, is basically an extended theatrical stunt. Three (superlative) actors play the three brothers who founded Lehman Brothers in 1850 – and they play everybody else as well, switching characters, genders, ages at lightning speed as they tell the story of the bank’s rise and fall. I suppose having the three actors who played the three original Lehman Brothers play every role is probably meant to make some kind of point about the dynamics within a business dynasty, but that point begins to break down in the final act, because by the time of the bank’s demise in 2008 it had been almost forty years since a family member sat on the board.

If you don’t dwell too much on why Ben Power chose this rather eccentric form of storytelling for his adaptation of Stefano Massini’s original script, which allows for a significantly larger cast, you’ll be rewarded with a dazzling three hours of theatrical storytelling. Under Sam Mendes‘s meticulously precise direction, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley are on top form as they embody (and switch between) a dizzying array of characters; as they navigate Es Devlin’s revolving monochrome glass-and-steel office set, we see the story of American capitalism reflected in the story of this one bank, and the fact that this story, and the ramifications of it, comes across so clearly as delivered by three middle-aged men dressed in 19th Century frock coats is a spectacular theatrical achievement. Yes, you’re essentially watching a (very long) history lesson, but in the hands of Mendes and these actors it’s also great fun, and sometimes very funny (Simon Russell Beale is pricelessly funny in one scene as a procession of potential fiancées). This subject-matter could easily produce an incredibly dry play, and it’s to everyone’s credit that The Lehman Trilogy is anything but.

If you’re looking for a thorough examination of the bank’s collapse, though, this is not it. Yes, we see the seeds for the bank’s collapse being sown long before it happens, and we’re shown the crash and the effects of it – the final tableau, indeed, directly shows the effects of the crash on the bank’s employees, and is the most moving thing in the production – but you won’t get a detailed lecture about the complexities of the subprime mortgage crisis (if you’d like one – and really, what could be more fun? – then The Big Short is on Netflix). Power’s adaptation of Massini’s original (and significantly longer) Italian script glosses over a number of significant points in the history of Lehman Brothers as an institution, including the bank’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, which isn’t mentioned at all – an odd choice given that a significant chunk of the first (of three) acts is given over to the American Civil War.

And – after Hamilton and The Inheritance this seems to be a recurring theme this year – if third-person narration in the theatre irritates you, this show will irritate the hell out of you. Mendes and his cast tell their story brilliantly – but they tell more of the story than they dramatise, because that’s the inevitable result of cramming over 160 years of history into three acts and three actors. The flow of information is such that you can’t sit back and let it wash over you – this is a show where you have to pay attention (yes, I know, that’s soooooooo last-century). It’s a testament to the skill of Mendes and his cast that it’s always absolutely clear who each actor is embodying even though switching characters is accomplished without costume changes, but if you let your mind wander for even a second it would be easy to get lost. This is in many ways a tremendously exciting piece of theatre, but it’s hard work, particularly when you’re sitting in the thigh-busting lower-back-breaking cheap seats at the front.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go, although at this point it’s day seats only. The Lehman Trilogy is often stunningly good, the actors are truly brilliant, and Es Devlin and Luke Halls’s set and video projections provide a far more varied visual palette than you’d imagine possible from what amounts to a single glass-and-steel Mad Men-era office and a monochrome backdrop (you may need Dramamine in the lengthy sequence in the final act in which the office structure and the projections appear to be revolving in opposite directions). Candida Caldicot’s solo piano accompaniment (there are also prerecorded music cues; the music is by Nick Powell) often gives the show the feel of a silent movie, and that’s certainly one of the major influences in the production’s visual aesthetic. It’s a spectacular, overwhelming, thrilling piece of theatre – but, as I said, in this version it’s basically a stunt. You’ll be bowled over, but you’ll also be picking holes in it for days afterwards. Like last year’s Network in the same space, this is very definitely a show to experience. The production, overall, is far more fascinating than (this version of) the script.

Oh yes – and Simon Russell Beale’s brief-ish turn as the cynical, sharp-tongued Manhattan divorcée who marries a prominent Lehman descendant is worth the cost of the ticket in itself. In an evening of brilliant caricature acting, he’s first among equals.

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