Right story, wrong concept: The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre
The Lehman Trilogy
Lyttelton, National Theatre
Stalls B7, £18
14 July 2018
I feel for Stefano Massini. Or at least I would do if he weren’t obviously doing quite well for himself. I feel for him because he has a great concept: the Lehman Brothers from rise to fall. He has a great story: the original Lehman brothers, from rise to fall. But the two don’t fit together, and try as he might Massini just can’t square the circle. The result is that even this excellent adaptation, even with the National throwing in all its bells and whistles, even though a very pleasant way to pass an evening, The Lehman Trilogy can’t do what it promises to do. Which maybe has a certain ironic aptness.
The opening is 2008, on the eve of bankruptcy. This makes sense: it’s what literally everyone knows about Lehman Brothers. How did we get here? The play promises to take us back, to join the dots, to lead us through and show us what it all means, for Lehman Brothers and for society as a whole. We wind back to the 19th century and the arrival in the US of the first Lehman brother. Cool. I’m in for the ride.
Over the next two hours we meander through the family’s progress, the gentle narrative pace giving us ample opportunity to admire the play’s many strengths. We have: the collective and individuated skills of Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley; Massini and adaptor Ben Power’s clever interplay of narration and action; a skilfully light introduction to America’s economic history; Es Devlin’s clever production design (even if it is another spinny box); and perhaps most of all the truly excellent music direction of Candida Caldicot.
But by the end of two long acts we’ve barely broached the 20th century, and 2008 seems a long way away. This is because the span of the family does not actually match the span of the company and having carefully led us through Massini must now leap erratically, making connections where there are none. The now frenzied assertions of Lehman Brothers’ significance – that not only did they invent brokering and banking in the first two acts but in the third are the first to invest in computing, are the first to understand marketing – lose all credibility. And so we arrive at the big question of 2008 – why did Lehman Brothers fail? – with no answer.
Which is only disappointing because it is 2018 and because the play is called The Lehman Trilogy. If it hadn’t promised to tell us something about our immediate society then we could well have inferred a less direct relevance from Massini’s real story, the successes and trials of an immigrant family from a bygone era. Shorn of the expectations it places upon itself, this is an elegant and entertaining piece of theatre that poignantly considers the passing of generations. An answer to 2008 it in no way manages to be. But maybe no one would have gone to see it if it hadn’t had Lehman in the title.