Friday, August 09, 2019

'The Lehman Trilogy' by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power

9 August 2019

The defining moment of the 2008 banking crisis was the fall of Lehman Brothers Bank. The iconic image of traders leaving its skyscraper headquarters in New York carrying their personal effects in cardboard boxes summed up a grim period in our recent history. Sam Mendes’ National Theatre production of ‘The Lehman Trilogy’, which we saw in a NTLive encore screening at the Quarry Theatre in Bedford on Thursday, tells the story of Lehman Brothers – from the arrival in America of the three immigrant brothers from Bavaria in the 1840s to the collapse of the bank eleven years ago. ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ is an adaptation by Ben Power of Stefano Massini’s nine hour long Italian radio play. Although Power has trimmed the play considerably it still lasts three and a half hours, in three acts with two intervals. But it’s an amazing theatrical performance. Three actors – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley – play the Lehman brothers, their sons, grandsons, wives and a host of other characters in an acting masterclass. There are no costume changes and hardly any props, but the switches between characters are clear from small changes in facial expressions and posture. The play is mostly narration rather than dialogue, with the three actors taking turns to provide the narrative voice like a Greek chorus. This might have made for a dull play but the story is gripping and the script is playful and poetic, full of recurring phrases and repetitive episodes. The staging (by Es Devlin) is simple but inventive, with the three actors enclosed in a giant rotating transparent box through which we see constantly changing back projections (by Luke Halls). Apart from a boardroom table and chairs, the only furniture is a pile of the infamous cardboard boxes, which are used to construct each scene in this epic family saga. The actors are accompanied by Nick Powell’s sparse music, performed on a single piano in front of the stage by Candida Caldicot. It’s an unusual but incredibly effective theatrical experience. The focus is on the history of Lehman Brothers and the development of Western capitalism: there isn’t much detail about the causes of the 2008 crash. But it’s a fascinating story, brilliantly acted.

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