Theatre Royal, March 1


The Lehman Trilogy is a 21st-century masterwork. This is true of Stefano Massini’s original novel and in some ways even more so of this play, adapted by Ben Power and directed by Sam Mendes for the UK’s National Theatre. If Hamilton partly charted the birth of capitalism, The Lehman Trilogy is a kind of sequel: what capitalism did next. This, of course, was to move from generating profit by production to convincing people to pay “money they do not have for things they do not need”, as one character says, before the ultimate stage of making money just from money.

The dark cloud of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the financial institution, which helped trigger the 2008 global crisis, hangs over all that unfolds. Unlike Massini’s book, the play begins and ends with that catastrophe, but it is not about it. It is about the slow dilution of any moral compass in relation to how one achieves wealth.

Aaron Krohn, Adrian Schiller and Howard W Overshown. Photos: Daniel Boud.

It tells of how a fabric store in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1844, grew into a business so monumental that its collapse could affect the world economy. That business became a bank to profit from the South’s reconstruction after the Civil War, but meanwhile the Lehmans variously had interests in cotton, coffee, sugar, tobacco, coal, railroads, oil, the Panama Canal, armaments, cars, airlines, film, TV and computers.

The book runs to 700 pages, and the play is also monumental, its three acts lasting three-and-half hours, although the plethora of characters – four generations of male Lehmans, plus wives and others – are played by just three people. Adrian Schiller is Henry, the first brother to arrive in the US from Bavaria, followed by Emanuel (Howard W Overshown) and Mayer (Aaron Krohn).

The three actors also play male and female characters ranging from mewling babes to bent geriatrics, with few overt costume changes beyond sunglasses when Krohn is Bobbie, the last Lehman to run the bank – decades before it went bankrupt. So virtuosic, moving and truthful are their performances that there’s never any confusion about who is whom, and meanwhile their unchanging faces across the generations compound the sense of dynasty.

Howard W Overshown, Aaron Krohn and Adrian Schiller. Photos: Daniel Boud.

While the play references Jewish scripture less than the book, the story and characters form a modern theology of their own, with money their god and snowballing profits their messiah. Massini’s text is even laid out in verse-like lines, and if it’s not exactly poetry, it’s piercingly intensified prose.

The characters in the third act lack the depth and stark definition of those in the first, which mirrors the book, although the novel’s diminished narrative drive towards the end is mitigated on the stage via the simple expedient of the text’s compression. Similarly, Mendes’ enthralling and intelligent production distils its own theatricality in every way, from that abbreviated text and small cast to the monochrome costumes (Katrina Lindsay), set (Es Devlin) and projections (Luke Halls), and on to Nick Powell’s minimalist-yet-unifying music, performed live by pianist Cat Beveridge.

Aside from modern, success-shouting office furnishings mounted on a snappily utilised revolve, the set’s key ingredients are dozens of storage boxes. These can represent anything from a shop counter to a piano to stepping stones. All the while they are also a metaphorical house of cards – once built upon products and later just upon numbers – waiting to collapse.

“The world isn’t always as horrible as it seems,” Bobby tries to convince his first wife, Ruth. “No,” she replies. “It’s much worse.” But this production is tinged with human greatness.

Until March 24.