Bertolt Brecht, the marxist dramatist and innovator, believed by moving away from sentimental, emotive theatre, he could allow theatre goers to think. He called this theory of distancing the audience alienation. Sam Mendes production of ‘The Lehman Triology’ is spare, unsentimental and more successfully Brechtian than Brecht.
He is aided by a script by Stephan Massini and adapted by Ben Power, rich in third person accounts and slight on dialogue. It has the feel more of a narrative poem than traditional drama. The tour de force ensemble acting by Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles is given a deliberate stylised alienated theatricality which allows them to tell an epic story clearly and elegantly over 3 hours.
Stefano Massini’s play has been performed widely across Europe since 2013. It covers 150 years of capitalism through the journey of the Lehmans. The story begins with the arrival of the immigrant brothers and concludes with the collapse of the eponymous bank. It is a narrative with greed at its very heart.
The seeds of toxic greed are sown when the Lehman Brothers profit from slavery and continues through their bank rolling and profiting from tobacco, railroads, armaments, the atomic bomb and finally the selling of sub-prime mortgages. Not that any of this is particularly explicit rather it is poetic. ‘Money is the flour in our recipe’ opines Philip Lehman whilst another character exhorts ‘what we do is make people buy and buy not through need but instinct’.
Massini examines Wall Streets ‘Greed is Good’ message and the audience is left to ponder ‘what is so good about money’. Perhaps the play is suggesting that one day we will be sitting shiva (jewish practice of mourning) for the whole hollow system.
The show is far from indigestible and it does not seek to explain finance. It sets up a framework to observe the relentless trajectory of banking through the ‘manifest destiny’ thinking of the Lehmans. The rhythm is maintained by inventive underscoring from musical director Candida Caldicot. It is often poignant, funny and clever creating moments of sheer delight.
Jon Clark’s lighting is superb – a departure for the National Theatre, whose plays are often characterised by the on stage gloom. The set is a steel and glass revolving re-creation of the Lehman’s New York sky scraper which allows the play to begin at the end and ensure that the failure of the bank and subsequent crash is an on-stage presence throughout.
Much has been made in other reviews of the trio of white males playing all the roles including women. This is a timely observation since men have been occupying women’s space on stage for generations.
At the Lytleton Theatre, National Theatre, until 20 October.