Friday 10 February 2023

The Lehman Trilogy - Review

Gillian Lynne Theatre, London


Written by Stefano Massini
Adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Sam Mendes

l-r Hadley Fraser, Nigel Lindsay, Michael Balogun

As a tour-de-force of theatrical skill, the National Theatre's The Lehman Trilogy, now revived at Covent Garden's Gillian Lynne Theatre has to remain one of London's highlights. The 3hr 20min opus, reflecting the transition of the american dream into a nightmare is a sublime presentation of acting skill and technical genius. Stepping into the roles of the three Lehman brothers are Nigel Lindsay as Henry, Hadley Fraser as Mayer and Michael Balogun as Emanuel.

And of course what makes this production quite such a Herculean effort for its actors is that not only are they playing the three immigrant brothers, setting up in Montgomery Alabama in the 1840s, but they are playing every other supporting role too.

Notwithstanding the actors’ excellence, matched by Es Devlin’s ingenious stage designs that have translated well to the Gillian Lynne Theatre together with Luke Halls' mesmerising video projections, the play is profoundly flawed both in its literary construct and even more so, in this particular iteration.

The Lehman Trilogy opens with scenery being constructed out of dozens of cardboard 'Bankers Boxes', items that are synonymous with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers merchant bank in the 2008 financial crisis, when news broadcasts streamed images of hundreds of the bank's employees pouring out of its offices in Canary Wharf and Wall Street carrying their personal belongings in those boxes, images that came to define the impact of the 2008 meltdown on the world's financial centres. Equally, the play’s opening presents us with the three leads, clearly dressed as observant patrician Jews, one by one getting off the boat and heading for Alabama. The three never leave the stage throughout, nor change their costumes as the years roll by. Likewise, the cardboard boxes are also on stage from start to finish.

The message is clear, an insidious antisemitic conflation permeating the entire play, that visually links Jews with sharp financial practice and corporate collapse. That this trope of an association is even then factually inaccurate, given that the Lehman brothers’ descendants lost their last familial connection with the bank in 1969 and therefore had no connection whatsoever with the Lehman corporation at the time of its collapse, is treated by Stefano Massini as little more than an inconvenient truth.

Where this production compounds racial insensitivity even further is in the casting of Michael Balogun as Emanuel Lehman. Alabama in 1844 was a slave state in the heart of America’s south. A place where, especially in the play's first act, Balogun plays a person of self-made privilege. This of course was an opportunity not afforded to Alabama’s black population at the time and in his casting, the production’s creatives and producers have shown scant acknowledgment of Alabama’s desperately troubling history of racial oppression.

The Lehman Trilogy’s 21st century stagecraft may well be state of the art and its performances, arguably, the best in town. Its ethics however, are mired in the Dark Ages.

Runs until 20th May 
Photo credit: Mark Douet

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