Review – The Lehman Trilogy, National Theatre

Wednesday 11 July 2018

A three and a half hour three-hander where the each of the three hands is a white male? At the National? No doubt apologies will be demanded and made.

A surprising lack of box-ticking here then, but there is an awful lot of box-lifting and box-shifting. But we will return to that in due course.

The Lehman Trilogy is “Ben Power’s English version of Stefano Massini‘s vast and poetic play, a hit across Europe”. But don’t be mislead. If you’re expecting anything about the spectacular collapse of the Lehman firm that is dealt with in about one minute of the hefty running time.

Adam Godley, Ben Miles and Simon Russell Beale play the Lehman brothers and their descendants starting with Henry Lehman’s arrival in New York in 1844 and continuing up to bancruptcy in 2008. So an awful lot of business to squeeze in. Literally.

It’s not giving too much away to say that Russell Beale’s Henry snuffs it fairly early on. But we should not despair as we’re treated to Beale playing a variety of Lehman offspring and wives and even a wide-eyed maid putting Phil in mind of Miriam Margolyes. A sense of humour is not in short supply. Godley is particularly good as a variety of potential wives-to-be, as radio static (yes, you read that correctly) and as a dying Lehman doing the twist to “The Beat Goes On (La de da de de, la de da de da)”. This earned him a spontaneous round of applause.

The often wittily playful script dictates that the 3 characters narrate and speak mainly in the present historic (as is the current irritant in all documentaries these days) and describe their own characters in the third person which by the second part begins to wear thin and grate slightly. Why it’s called a trilogy is anyone’s guess. It’s just a long three act play with few distinct differences between the three sections.

Sam Mendes production on Es Devlin’s revolving contemporary glass-walled office set suggests some judicious recycling from the National’s Network. Phil despaired at the TFL-inspired nannying outside the auditorium warning “During Act 3 there is video content that may cause dizziness”. Yet as the set twirled relentlessly against Luke Halls‘ fabulous Cinerama-styled video projections Phil felt as light in his head as he normally does on his feet. No theatrical venture had made him feel this sick since Les Miserables. But then there may have been other reasons for that.

One section, which has the whole set appearing to rise (due to the projections behind) is most disconcerting. There are touches of brilliance and it does look spectacular at times but we became a little irritated by the aforesaid constant reconfiguring of cardboard “banker’s boxes” into desks, steps, pianos, skyscrapers, tightrope walking towers etc, which felt, well, a little studenty. The Lehman’s are also prone to writing in black marker pens on the glass walls. If your attention drifts at times (and ours did on occasion) you can wonder how long it takes the stage hands to get them back to their opening scene sparkle.

The story could almost be about almost any immigrant business men who worked their arses off in pursuit of success and fortune although as a history much of this is quite fascinating. Of course we know where the Lehmans are heading ultimately and there are definite pops at the structure and pitfalls of capitalism, though we’d have liked more than a cursory nod to the collapse. Perhaps they feel that’s already been done. We should beware of big hits from Europe, and we’re not talking about Luka Modric (that’s a football reference).

It’s been a while since Phil’s poked his head over the critical parapet. He’s so out of touch with audience reactions (an enthusiastic standing ovation at the preview we attended) and critics’ responses at the moment that he’s expecting this to garner slews of 5 stars reviews when it opens. Sadly, not from us.



4 Responses to “Review – The Lehman Trilogy, National Theatre”

  1. MKB Says:

    I am glad it wasn’t just me who wasn’t overly enthused by this. Also a three-star for me, but perilously close to two at times.

    I found it difficult to like any of the Lehman characters, as portrayed. Their greedy capitalism, their casual disregard for the slave trade that funded their first businesses, and the way in which wives were an accessory on their march to riches; none of this really rang true. Where was their compassion? Where was the love? Where was their humanity?

    Also a rare mis-step for Es Devlin. I missed many lines of dialogue, distracted by her much rotating set. And in stalls row K, I took a direct hit from spotlight reflections whenever the set was stopped.

    I found the constant re-arrangement of boxes and the use of marker pens tiresome and rather tedious.

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Good point. Forgot to mention lines lost as the box revolved and characters were behind glass. And suffered Close Encounters-style spotlight dazzle too.

  2. CWA Says:

    Just got back from seeing the first two acts, I’m afraid I’d had enough and these days no matter how much I’ve paid I’d rather use my time constructively than sit there enduring a “play” which I’m getting little from. The actors are three of the best currently working on the stage and SRB in particular dines out at those moments where he has to veer from his basic persona, the ageing rabbi was a particular delight. And I liked the set and the video projections but after another set rotation and another speech I sat there thinking what a wonderful radio play this is. I now read reviews after I’ve seen something rather than before and came home to see what others think, the fact I’m in a minority not for the first time doesn’t surprise me. No doubt the broadway transfer and the film will follow but a litany of events in the life of Lehman presented in this way I found to be one dimensional.

  3. I usually agree with the Whingers …more or less, but I am amazed that this delightful production has been dismissed with such a short measure of wine. I loved it. It was a difficult subject but was made into an interesting one. The script was witty and the interpretation of it by the actors, IMO perfect. It was funny. Simon Russell Beale was brilliant as were the two other actors, changing characters as required by the script perfectly. It was meant to be funny as well as a humorous reflection on the evils of the age and the history of capitalism built into one example. I had slightly dreaded 3.5 hours but I had no problem being entertained the whole time. *****

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