Jeremy Malies on the South Bank
17 July 2018
“It lit a match and the explosion was Trump.” This is the verdict of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon on the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The story of the bank is being told at the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’ treatment of a play by Stefano Massini using a translation by Ben Power which is itself an adaptation and distillation. The original was performed at the Théâtre du Rond-Point, Paris, in 2013 and at the Piccolo Teatro, Milan, two years later.
Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale and Ben Miles.
Photo credit: Mark Douet.
Explaining his ability to see through the three-card trick as performed by street magicians, Philip Lehman (Simon Russell Beale) says that the important thing is not to be distracted. Distractions are presumably a concern for Mendes who chooses to present an epic tale as a three-hander so that we focus on essentials. I found the style excessively (and perhaps self-consciously) austere.
We begin at the end with the defining images familiar from news footage of bankers trudging out of Lehman Brothers’ gleaming offices with their possessions in cardboard boxes. For most theatre-goers who do not work in the sector and have no great love of financiers, schadenfreude is a pardonable reaction even if we know that the ramifications left everybody in the mire.
Power’s text lies on the cusp of blank verse and incantation, with minimalist accompaniment throughout from a live pianist. The audience enjoys just the right amount of prescience as to forthcoming events without the dramatic irony being laboured. I’m a dissenting voice in not being bowled over by the play but the cast of three became a problem for me. Mendes seems compelled to introduce minor characters (often women and children) who must be played by the principals and the approach begins to pall.
Russell Beale is excellent when bringing nuanced detail across three successive generations. But even his virtuosity is tested elsewhere. As he hobbles and stoops to crudely suggest that he has become an elderly rabbi you would think from the audience reaction that this is Chaplin or Keaton resurrected. Meanwhile, decent verbal jokes fall on stony ground and the side stories deprive us of what might be more interesting detail about wartimes, the 1929 Crash and 1987 Black Monday.
Set design by Es Devlin. Photo credit: Mark Douet.
There is a strong moral here and we empathize with the founding Lehmans who insist that risk-taking should not be excessive and there should always be a tangible product. The flour running through the cake can’t be money alone. You could apply to the first and second generation of Lehman brothers as an investment bank because they were just that. They would invest in a project (their early undertakings were as massive as the Panama Canal) and society ended up with better infrastructure. Which brings us back to Trump. His popularity at the polls might have been a reaction against greedy bankers and entitlement but he always gives us a product however tawdry, be it a reality show, a glitzy hotel or a golf course at an inappropriate location.
The very first Italian version of the play was five hours long. At three hours and 20 minutes this precis still felt like an endurance test. I was also confounded by a casual attitude to history, the worst example being the original brother Henry Lehman arriving in New York in 1844 to be greeted by the Statue of Liberty. (She would not appear in the harbour for another 42 years.) This is the worst anachronism I’ve seen in five decades of theatre-going. By contrast, great care is taken with apposite quotation from the Torah and the handling of traditions of mourning, courtship and marriage.
Statue apart, Luke Halls’ video design using a cyclorama (particularly the evolution of the Manhattan skyline) is first-rate and we are literally dizzied by the flickering imagery as the bank finally implodes. By contrast, Es Devlin’s set design is simplicity itself being little more than a glass cube, perhaps with the intention of showing that while the early Lehmans were admirably transparent, those in charge at the end hid everything from regulators. The cube rotates through events that are often cyclical and Mendes uses this to reinforce the point that the Lehmans are not learning enough from previous catastrophes. The cast of three means that the previous generations (we see three generations in total) are always subliminally with us.
The actors wear nothing that is not black, white or grey, and the few props follow this scheme. A tightrope walker (obvious but by no means clunky symbolism) crosses between skyscrapers in an enormous repeated image. The financial detail is always accessible. There is no inside baseball here; Power conveys complex commercial ideas in simple compelling language.
The most interesting and atypical Lehman brother is Bobbie who steered the company for 40 years from 1925, the last family member to have total control. Adam Godley is impressive playing him, convincing us that this is a genuine maverick and visionary who first glimpsed the potential of information technology, served as a respected trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was an outstanding philanthropist.
But as we neared the bank’s collapse in 2008, I reflected on the skill of Sir David Hare who in his The Power of Yes created a far more entertaining generalized view of the 2007-08 Crash during which he collaborated with a young Lehman Brothers analyst on the script and eventually wrote her in as a character. The Lehman Trilogy continues to do good business at the box office but in terms of a final evaluation, I’d want to sell not buy its stock.