The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre: an epic tragedy of rags to riches
In Sam Mendes’ new staging of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy, history hurtles forward as a series of catastrophes. But where there is rubble, there is also opportunity, and through the cataclysmic flash points in modern American history, we follow the Lehman family as they chart the course of capitalism as we know it.
The play is genuinely epic in scope. We begin surrounded by glass walls, overlooking modern day New York City, as a voice on the radio tells of one of the world’s biggest investment banks on the brink of collapse. Then, enter our three protagonists: Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman, played by Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley respectively. We watch as they narrate together a familiar tale: a family of Jewish German immigrants, witnessing the Statue of Liberty come into focus, trying to find fortune in an unfamiliar land. This classic tale of rags-to-riches is spread across 150 years of history, as the successive generations of Lehmans work their way from a modest cloth and suits store to the glittering heights of Downtown New York.
While the narrative is archetypal and often sentimental, the true achievement of the production lies in its style. The three-hour performance is half-acted, half-narrated, by the original Lehman brothers, wandering about the glass walls of the set, verbally moulding the cold, corporate office environment into a rich historical tableau. Such a feat demands the best out of its actors—and Beal, Miles and Godley do not disappoint. They (almost) flawlessly slip through a dozen or so different accents during the performance; they metamorphose via sometimes-subtle, sometimes-grotesque bodily contortions; and their co-presence onstage throughout means they are constantly egging each other on with a frenetic energy that suggests a cast genuinely delighted by what they are doing.
Such versatility is of course congruent with one of the play’s major themes: that is, the plurivocality and multiplicity of the immigrant’s narrative; that constant re-invention of identity that attends one’s experience of being cut off by the roots. Throughout the play, the politics of naming constantly re-occurs: from the immigration officer’s inability to pronounce the eldest brother’s first name, Hayum (leading to his rechristening as ‘Henry’), to the on-going permutations of the brothers’ company, from clothes shop to cotton supplier to investment bank. At key moments of dramatic tension, the brothers write with board-markers on the glass walls of the set—a key piece of directorial brilliance, as the words which are supposed to pin down one historical iteration of identity echo throughout the ages while remaining, inevitably, erasable.
All of this brings us to simultaneously the most fascinating and the most fraught element of the performance: that is, the status of history. Within the universe of The Lehman Trilogy, history announces itself in two principle forms: prophetic revelations given to Lehman family members in their dreams, and the messages of the wind. Some of the most haunting and memorable scenes are these dream sequences, periodically announced by a telling shift in the weather. The sky sets itself on fire as the Civil War threatens the brothers’ involvement in the national cotton industry; thunder clouds emerge on the eve of the 1929 Wall Street crash. It’s here that the Lyttleton Theatre’s grand revolving stage and huge backing screen come into their element—we get the impression that historical events are forcefully intruding, ripping up the fabric of what has come before, realigning what’s happening onstage independent of any recognisable human agency. History is thus something that happens to the brothers, rather than something that is made by them. Investment bankers surf the waves of human affairs, scouring for fluctuations in the tide that allow them to rise ever higher.
The only problem is that such a naturalisation of history very quickly starts to sound like an investment banker’s internal fantasy, rather than a perspective of the Lehman brothers offered from without. In the first part of the trilogy, for example, the brothers exploit and take advantage of the Alabama cotton industry, rather than participate in and actively shape it. The causes, rather than the effects, of their actions take narrative precedence, and history hurtles at such a pace that very little time is set aside for reflection upon the actual, material effects of capital upon the American landscape. These effects emerge throughout the play as ghostly echoes and encoded images: the play leaves black bodies behind after it finishes narrating the Civil War, only for one to re-emerge right at the end of the final part, with the inauguration of Lehman Brothers’ modern trading floor, whose screen of dilating numbers is topped by a ‘portrait of a black woman covered in gold’. The image is haunting and suggestive—a spectral reminder of the Lehman brothers’ beginnings, and a nod towards the repressed continuities of a country founded upon slave labour.
At surface level, The Lehman Trilogy is a rags-to-riches tragedy: from humble and admirable old-world beginnings, successive generations of Lehmans are led further astray by greed, money and power. As each member of the family shuffles off their mortal coil, their traditional funeral rights are shortened, perverted, until eventually abolished. All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy profaned. So far, so familiar, but what is truly interesting about the performance are the ghosts disrupting such a linear narrative. As with any synoptic, era-spanning tale, the stories left out can often be the most fascinating, rather than those kept in. Originally performed in 2013, Massini’s play is just as much a post-9/11 work as it is one written in the shadow of the housing market crash. Yet the play doesn’t include this moment in its smorgasbord of events. Instead, the images of towers falling and of Babel breaking; of people surrounded by fire rushing to higher ground for breathable air; of a tightrope walker falling between two, unnamed structures—echoes of the attacks suffuse the play from the 1840s to the present day. What is revealed by the strange fluctuations in the atmosphere and the counter-logic of dream unsettles convenient narratives of innocence lost and reminds us that history is always haunted by the ghosts of our present.
The Lehman Trilogy is playing in rep at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton Stage until the 20th October, 2018.
Feature photograph: Mark Douet.