The Lehman Triology

THE LEHMAN TRILOGY,  UK, 2019. Starring Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley. Directed by Sam Mendes. 180 minutes. No rating available.

This is a film and photographed version of the stage production, from the prestigious National Theatre Live. It is one of the best productions and transference of theatre to film. While it is a play, it is more an experience of storytelling.

The running time is three hours, divided into three acts. The action covers 160 years, the history of Lehman Brothers, the migrants from Rampi in Bavaria, two brothers arriving in the 1830s, the older, Henry, arriving in New York, the second brother, Emanuel, arriving in Baltimore and the two brothers setting up a fabric store in Montgomery, Alabama, where they are joined by the third brother.

The first act is entitled The Three Brothers. The second act moves on to children and grandchildren, culminating in the collapse of the stock exchange in 1929. The third act is called The Immortal, an ironic title for the history of Lehman Brothers, the company eventually being taken over at the end of the 20th century by others – and then, its final collapse in 2008.

The staging is striking and intriguing. There is a large revolving platform, the structure of the room and space with some glass walls and open area. The cast is able to make its way around the vast space as well as move outside it when necessary. In the space there are many boxes which can be used for various purposes illustrating stock, money, as well as building blocks on which the actors may sit, stand, climb. The atmosphere comes from background rear projection, a range of visual effects to illustrate Montgomery Alabama, the cotton fields and fires, New York City, Wall Street, the 20th century crowding in on the Lehman Brothers’ offices.

This indicates that the play, derived from a nine hour radio program by an Italian poet, Stefano Massini, translated and adapted for the stage by Ben Power, is an overview of the growth of American capitalism from the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st-century, a history of business, the shift into brokerage, agencies for products and industries, the formation of a bank, the management of money, the exploitation of money… from shops and shopfronts to city offices to the history of Wall Street and the American stock exchange.

While the technical aspects are so striking, along with a single pianist playing a range of mood music accompaniments for each era, it is the language and performance that hold the audiences, at times, spellbound. There are three actors who begin as the three Lehman brothers but then move on to a whole range of characters, family descendants, but also incidental characters in Alabama, in New York, with family, including female and children characters. There are no changes of costume, the actors simply indicating the change of character by posture, action, voice change, intonations and modulations.

It also means that a lot of the dialogue of the play is, in fact, the characters describing what they are doing and why they are doing it as well as the effect on them. On paper, this might be a device that would be argued against, but it does provide a wonderfully dramatic blend of word and action.

But the first and the final words of acclaim have to be for the three performers, three men with great credits in English theatre, film and television. Here, they are at their best, eliciting audience admiration for their memory capacity for performing during the three hours, the accuracy of their portrayals, the perfect timing as they interact. And, their voices and articulation draw the audience in even as they describe the actions and perform them.

The three actors are Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles. Audiences will have seen them in a range of roles on stage and screen, and small screen. Much of their presentation could be described as performance rather than acting but in creating great variety of characters, they rely on the techniques of acting, instantly creating characters, communicating feelings, communicating ideas.

And, direction is by veteran stage director an Academy award winning film director (for American Beauty), Sam Mendes.

Sharmill Films                                            Released August 29th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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