Review of ‘Lehman Trilogy’: “They knew how to tease our greed”

The rise and fall of the company that held dominion on the world’s economic fate gives a full testimony on the West End stand – through the acclaimed words of Stefano Massini in this revised production by the National Theatre. Guillermo Nazara reviews Ben Power’s adaptation of one the most praised plays in the last years, to let us know if this new work is as rich as the men who inspired it.

Money makes the world go around, the world go around, the world around. And can also halt it completely – stopping its natural beat just through the turmoil of a human invention. Over a decade has passed since the once almighty company Lehman Bro. declared bankruptcy – manacling the globe and hazing its destiny. Reassurance for some, an anecdote for others and a lesson for everybody, the personification of the corporate universe and the exploration of its mortal side in such a divinized environment serves, with no doubt, as an exciting premise for both playwrights and audiences – offering also the opportunity to give redemption to those who society has chosen to demonize (fairly or not) and viceversa.

Lehman Trilogy is far too intelligent to do neither of which. It’s critical without exposing its critique, but what triggers such observations. It doesn’t present its characters as villains or heroes, but plainly as people that, mostly as everyone, fight for their survival – no matter if that concerns earning a decent life or maintaining their place as kings of the world. In other words, it’s true and complex just as our essence, and its own too.

Divided into three acts (the title may have ruined the surprise for you), the piece relies on three sole actors to journey through the over 100 years of the German-born family’s legacy – living the American dream in what might as well be its most gluttonous fulfillment. Starting at the very same moment when it all comes to an end, the show moves from that point back in time to tell the what, who, when, why and how of a self made empire whose own weight cracked its destiny.

Written by Stefano Massini and adapted for the English-speaking stage by Ben Power, its writing and structural framework are truly a masterclass on narrative crafting – seamlessly mixing and pasting altogether a wide range of techniques to create a “theatre-within-the-theatre” atmosphere, while at the same time underlining during the whole performance a feel of factual reality. Directed by Sam Mendes and using a figurative set designed by Es Devlin, enhanced by the surrounding screen animations created by Luke Halls, the whole recount is presented (or suggested as) an attempt by its protagonists to have their own side (though not necessarily exalting) of the story heard – like a last chance for an troubled spirit to find its own redemption. An interpretation of the material that not only does work magnificently, but also gives a further and naturalistic sense to the piece’s general storytelling style. All of it reinforced through a brilliantly devised score by Nick Powell, supplying an ambiance of allure and interest that’s always in service of the action.

Of the three brothers/sons/wives/and-whatever-may-come in this production, Nigel Lindsay as Henry Lehman (and many more) is indeed the fair recipient of the highest praise, as his infectious flare (channeled however through a subtle, subdued rendition) shines with power and remarkable strength on the boards. At the same time, Hadley Fraser, playing the part of Mayer and later Robert Lehman, endows his characters with elegance and charming stamina, demonstrating sufficient chamaleonism to guide the viewers through every role.

It wouldn’t far-fetched to say that Lehman Trilogy is something we’ve already seen. It’s that long blockbuster film you shouldn’t miss because every minute of it is worth your time – and you may not even want it to finish. It’s the refined cultural event that will broaden your mind if you’re a newcomer and nurture your inquisitiveness if you’re a devotee. It’s that recurring piece that once in a while returns to remind us of how special and unique a work of art can be. Success sometimes comes as a strike of luck. But when so many things function so effortlessly, Philip Lehman’s wisdom takes over: “it’s not luck, it’s just strategy”.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

All pictures credit to Mark Douet.

Lehman Trilogy plays at London’s Gyllian Theatre from Monday to Saturday. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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