The Lehman Trilogy: a gripping tale of rags to riches to ruin

Hadley Fraser, Nigel Lindsay and Michael Balogun in The Lehman Trilogy - Mark Douet
Hadley Fraser, Nigel Lindsay and Michael Balogun in The Lehman Trilogy - Mark Douet

The story of Lehman Brothers, born as a humble store in Alabama in 1850 and expiring in 2008 in New York – the US’s fourth-largest investment bank suffering the biggest bankruptcy in the country’s history – is the tale of American capitalism, and, by default, our precarious, post-crash world.

At least, that’s how the Italian playwright Stefano Massini frames it in his rightly celebrated, much translated theatrical epic. The Lehman Trilogy identifies the key staging-posts of this Jewish immigrant family firm’s fortunes, and also more broadly, in its fable-like way, maps the enticing yet treacherous land of opportunity. From the selling of tangible goods to the abstract provision of financial services, ingenuity, risk-taking and rootlessness go hand in hand.

Ben Power’s canny National theatre adaptation of Massini’s work, with sublime direction by Sam Mendes, now returns to London for its third presentation after garnering five Tony awards amid a delayed, rather pandemic-hobbled Broadway stint.

The evening begins at the hour of collapse then rewinds to 1844. When does a noble pioneering spirit become soulless rapacity, when does a dream start to resemble a disease, and when is assimilation a kind of vanishing act? Es Devlin’s ingenious cubed set, conjuring an altitudinous boardroom – with panoramic back-drops (spellbinding video by Luke Halls) – intermittently revolves as if meditating on a puzzle, before spinning more alarmingly in the third act, the giddy effect suggestive of being trapped in a lift or on a carousel.

With just a trio of actors required to play Henry, Mayer and Emanuel Lehman, their descendants and those encountered on the way (including women), you’re paying to watch a feat of bravura performance. And, as in previous incarnations, the leads here – Nigel Lindsay, Hadley Fraser and Michael Balogun – don’t put a foot wrong as they materialise from behind piles of boxes, tilt between gaiety and wistfulness, and sternly prowl about.

At times, they resemble silhouetted statues but they’re flesh and blood too, suddenly and movingly stooped with age. The cast honours the text’s musicality, while Yshani Perinpanayagam is discreetly virtuosic in her haunting piano accompaniment.

Plaudits aside, I long to see a blow-by-blow account of those final years, especially post 9/11, when Lehman inc got carried away with the sub-prime bonanza; the post-Sixties phase, which saw control passing into new hands, has a bullet-point succinctness that edges into Wikipedia-ish superficiality. Massini’s must-see masterwork joins a corpus of invaluable, financially fixated drama, from David Hare’s The Power of Yes to Lucy Prebble’s Enron. It does sterling work of its own  – but there’s more still to do.

Booking until May 20;