A plot summary of The Lehman Trilogy – a three act play by Italian dramatist Stefano Massini – would imply that it’s yet another dramatized critique of the American Dream. Immigrants arrive in The Land of the Free, they struggle, then they thrive, they get ahead of themselves, then it all crumbles and we’re left to wonder whether it’s the “land of the free” after all. To an extent, it does examine the declared “equal opportunities” of the States, but, as shown in Ben Power’s adaptation – directed by Sam Mendes – which broadcast live to cinemas last night, it’s so much more than that. It is a visually mesmerising and haunting piece of theatre, and a historical character study as gripping as any Hilary Mantel novel.
Mendes has created something unique here; working with set designers Es Devlin and Luke Hall, composer Nick Powell and musical director Candida Caldicot. Devlin’s set is a transparent rotating box, filled with 21st century office ware; desks, files and storage boxes. These remain all the way through; even though the plot begins the mid-19th century. This is often referred to in good humour, like a modernised Shakespeare – at one point a black metallic desk lamp is called an oil lamp. And Luke Hall’s visuals panoramically surround the stage; its three dimensions drawing the audience in. From the cotton fields of Alabama to the New York skyline, which evolves from the Victorian era straight through the 20th century – this truly is immersive theatre. I’ve never seen anything like it, even at the experimental National Theatre.
Nick Powell’s music is a compelling addition; it isn’t pre-recorded, but a live piano accompaniment by the musical director Candida Caldicot. It must be challenging to play to a straight drama, but she does it seamlessly. Mendes called Caldicot “the fourth character” because her presence is just as vital as the three actors on stage, and he’s right. The music makes the performance sharper, but the fact that she’s doing it live – in full view of the audience – adds another dimension.
But onto the three actors. Massini’s original intention was to have a big cast portray this dynastic epic – and that’s how it’s been executed in previous performances across Europe. Mendes’ decision to whittle it down to three men is a brave one, but it pays off, and I wouldn’t want to see it done any other way going forward.
Simon Russell Beale is a stage veteran, which shows. I last saw him as Prospero back in 2016, so it was interesting to see him as Bavarian immigrant Henry Lehman, turning up in a strange land with the intent of learning the new lore. It’s in playing a variety of characters, however, that he proves how flexible an actor he is. From a dying Henry Lehman to a nerdy Philip Lehman, he’s a joy to watch. He’s joined by Ben Miles and Adam Godley, who are equally as versatile. Although he’s often hilarious – especially when playing a long line of potential wives in a comic scene – Godley stands out in his heartbreaking performance as Robert Lehman, who struggled to guide the company through the Great Depression. And Miles acts with passion as Emanuel Lehman – the brother who took the business from Alabama to New York. His awkward wooing of his wife brings more comic relief.
A stand-out scene between the three of them takes place at the turn of the twentieth century. Beale is young Philip, whereas Miles and Godley remain in their roles as the surviving German Lehman brothers. The New York skyline, on the screens behind them, has modernised, and is becoming what we know today. They are in a meeting, and it becomes clear that the business is unrecognisable to the two aging brothers – they become “like two bakers who suddenly don’t know what bread is” as the spritely Philip lectures them on future plans. It’s scenes like this, the older generation’s fear of change and youth’s embrace of it, that stand out. A critique of America is in there, but it’s the characters we care about.
Mendes’ reimagining of The Lehman Trilogy will begin a run on Broadway, starting March 6th next year. I urge you to see it; this will become a sensation.