Thursday 9 August 2018

The Lehman Trilogy at the National, or, American Dreams...American Nightmares

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Thursday 26th July 2018.

This show is full of things that in other contexts I've hated - long sections of descriptive narration, projections, gimmicky staging ticks. Here they all work, supported by extraordinary versatile acting from the three performers to create a beguiling and ultimately rather sad American history.

The show, adapted by Ben Powers from the original Italian, tells the story of the Lehman Brothers firm from its creation by three German Jewish immigrants in a small room in Montgomery Alabama, with a door handle that sticks, to its demise in a tower of glass in New York City.

Ed Deslin's design is simple but brilliantly evocative of a considerable range of places. We have a cube, subdivided into three rooms, slightly elevated on the Lyttelton's rarely used revolve. Behind it are walls for the projections. This limited visual canvas could have completely failed to convey the range of places required, but in contrast to so much modern theatre the feeling of specific places is powerfully evoked. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the use of projections is subtle - in harmony with the narrative and the textual delivery and movement of the performers. There's a blessed absence of flashiness. Secondly, because of the clever framing. The story starts with the collapse of Lehman Brothers - it gave me a sense of the actors as ghosts reliving their histories, of this modern house of Lehman haunted by its history. The creation of environment is further assisted by Nick Powell's evocative piano score, tirelessly performed by Candida Caldicot - again a device which in other contexts has driven me mad but here worked perfectly, often movingly.

The text (no doubt for copyright reasons but still maddeningly not available for purchase) has a marvellous poetry. Most of it is narration (both of events and feelings) with some scenes dramatised. Normally such a combination would drive me mad, here I felt it completely worked. Part of the reason I think is that it creates the key central characters as two people - themselves at the time of each event, and, as it were, their ghosts remembering how it felt, what they were thinking and so on. The richness of the text consistently brings characters, places and stories to vivid life. It has a particularly good eye for the telling detail that captures individual character - Russell Beale's Henry Lehman quietly telling us that when he arrived in America he was "wearing his best shoes...because" and giving a wry little smile; Adam Godley's Mair Lehman noting, at the end of a post Civil War list of  commodities the firm is trading in that these used to include "cotton" - reminding us in the wistful way he delivers that one word how much that lost Southern world meant to him. The text also has a clever knack of introducing a little vignette (the Wall Street tightrope walker, the young Philip Lehman watching and besting the street card player) and bringing it back later from a strikingly different perspective. This is part of the text's brilliant use of repetition - of phrases, stories, scenes. Among these I'd particularly single out the treatment of suicidal stockbrokers during the Wall Street Crash, the mourning scenes, and the haunting penultimate scene when the three original brothers ("a head, an arm and a potato") take us back to that first single room store in Alabama where they began building their American dream.

The show is, as others have commented, a masterclass in acting. All three perform multiple parts - changes often signified only by a subtle gesture, or a small prop - but all these people come convincingly alive. Among them I particularly noted Godley's Southern heiress who is "amused, annoyed, curious" and Russell Beale's divorcee in Act 3. But the centre of the show is their magnificent bringing to life of the various Lehman Brothers - each of them has two distinctive Lehmans to play, and all six emerge as distinct, detailed, human characters. Again and again the trio show how much can be done with an inflection of the voice, a gesture, or just standing or sitting in a particular way. Credit is also due here to Polly Bennett's movement, and to Sam Mendes's brilliant orchestration of all the varied elements.

The show has much to say about a range of contemporary issues - immigration, banking, anti-Semitism (I found something extraordinarily haunting given present politics about Russell Beale's opening description of his journey to America) and the American Dream. But it explores these through the personal stories of the brothers which gives a critical human touch, and it avoids the lecture, trusting to the intelligence of the viewer as too many new plays fail to do. A lot of contemporary playwrights could learn a lot from this show.

This is, in sum, a magnificent, mesmerising evening in the theatre. It's also a reminder of what the National has missed in not having Russell Beale onstage since Norris took over. All three of these actors should be regulars on its stages. In the meantime, queue for returns for this.

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