THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at the Gillian Lynne Theatre
“Relevant, gripping, foreboding and ultimately touching.”
“The Lehman Trilogy”, spanning over 150 years, is ostensibly an epic drama; an intricate portrayal of a dynasty following fortune and misfortune. Yet it is so much more. The sum of its parts adds up to one of the most extraordinary theatrical experiences. On paper, it is hard to see why. It is nearly three and a half hours long and it charts, in considerable detail, the rocky road of global capitalism, focusing of course on the Lehman brothers. Much of the narrative is unseen, exposed only through the spoken word. But a lecture it most certainly isn’t. A lesson, yes! Stefano Massini’s three act play (adapted by Ben Power) is a fable, parable, an allegory. It is poetry. A magical music box of stagecraft, where style and emotion meet in perfect harmony. A strikingly evocative human tale. And above all, a masterclass in acting.
It all begins on September 11th, 1844. Henry Lehman (Nigel Lindsay), the son of a Jewish merchant, emigrates to America from Bavaria, settling in Alabama; followed by his two brothers – Emanuel (Michael Balogun) and Mayer (Hadley Fraser) – a few years later. We warm to them immediately as they triumph over adversity. We are lulled into the humanity and gentleness with which they fairly rapidly achieve wealth, forgetting momentarily that what follows is a harsh cross-examination of the American Dream. Initially relying on slavery, the Lehmans soon learn to reap profit from disaster (other peoples’). The portents are planted. Yet the family firm survives for a century and a half, weathering the crash of 1929, but finally being swept under by the financial crisis of 2008.
In three acts, Sam Mendes’ production does not flag for one second. And even in its most blatant moments of exposition we are still gripped. Highly stylised, the narrative comes full circle, framed within Es Devlin’s rotating glass and metal set – softened by the symbolism of towering and cascading cardboard boxes. Luke Halls’ mostly monochrome video projections provide a shifting, panoramic backdrop – at key moments bursting into flames of colour and breath-taking movement. Nick Powell’s music underscores throughout, played live by pianist Yshani Perinpanayagam. A cycle of musical phrases and variations, sublime and subliminal, responding to every moment like a lover’s breath. At times restless, playful; sometimes achingly abandoned. All bookended with the evocative Jewish lullaby, ‘Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen’.
But the essence of the piece shines through the finesse and virtuosity of the trio of actors. Lindsay opens as the pioneering spirit Henry, followed by Balogun’s Emanuel and Fraser’s Mayer. Each of them singularly extraordinary and collectively unforgettable. As the timeline stretches, they switch genders to portray multiple characters, while seamlessly shifting down through the generations, morphing into the brothers’ descendants with astonishing versatility. In true tragedian style, the ending is inevitable and as it approaches the pace becomes more frantic – folding in on itself, racing against itself and racing ahead of itself. The events depicted are complex and ethically dubious. “I didn’t try to win… I decided to win”. A mantra that epitomises the Lehman’s strategies that left nothing to chance. The real winner, however, in this saga is the audience.
“The Lehman Trilogy” is a multi-layered extravaganza. Relevant, gripping, foreboding and ultimately touching. Never has capitalism been dressed up in such an alluring metaphor. We are almost seduced. But we are definitely seduced by the quality of the performances. An unmissable triumph that reminds us of theatre’s raison d’être.
Reviewed on 8th February 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Mark Douet
Previously reviewed at this venue: