The Lehman Trilogy, currently at the National Theatre, adapted from Stefano Massini’s original by Ben Power and directed by Sam Mendes, is stark, riveting, and occasionally, elusive.
This is an epic, three-act story of three devoutly Jewish immigrants who founded a financial empire that flourished and then fizzled out, leaving a trail of chaos and financial ruin and triggering the worst global crisis economic crisis since the Great Depression—but you know this already.
What is less clear is where the ball dropped, but that does not seem to be the most salient issue the play needs to address, as the Lehmans themselves did not inflict the final hammer blow.
This sparse production, in every sense—set, scenery, costume, props, and notably, cast — is universally appealing as a profound tale of immigrant redemption and ultimate decline.
It particularly resonates with the Jewish experience of migration and opportunity, which comes as a mixed blessing.
The Lehman brothers, beginning with Chaim (Henry), the eldest and first to leave Germany, are, at the outset, traditionally Orthodox Jews, grateful for everything.
Hence, Baruch Hashem, or Thank God, is uttered frequently, more so in the first act than in later ones.
By the end of the second act, the heirs apparent to the Lehman dynasty are still keeping up some of their fathers’ traditions, but in order to ease their acceptance into the upper social echelons and to prioritize their investments, have dropped their adherence to many of the rituals that held their families together.
The brothers’ tenacity in the face of Southern crop vicissitudes, deaths (their own), the ravages of war (the play skirts over the slavery issue), and other obstacles keeps them afloat.
So do their choices to become bankers and financiers, open a New York office, and partner with industrialists and other successful businessmen of the North.
There are strategic marriages that reinforce their growing empire, spats and fissures among the children, and Herbert’s civic conscience, which moves him out of the business and into New York politics.
At the same time, the more successful the Lehman Brothers and their descendants become, the more tragic the storyline.
This is not just because they have all but dropped the rituals, such as shiva, that held the Jewish people together, and are critical markers of respect for the deceased.
It is also a matter of the bonds among them, and the sense of an intrinsically Jewish self and ethos, that seem to be lost.
The set and props are compact and ingeniously multipurpose. Simon Russell Beale (Henry), Ben Miles (Emanuel) and Adam Godley (Mayer) are mind-boggling in their brilliance.
They master well nearly three hours of dialogue and countless dialects, iterations of cross-gender personalities, babies and adolescents, Wall Street tycoons, and a genius day trader, all with ease and distinction.
They chaperone us through frivolous relationships, failed marriages, and poignant life passages. They are physically malleable and flow seamlessly from one persona to another.
One could look at this play as a carte blanche indictment of capitalism and its failures and make that the takeaway, yet that is, at best, only part of the story.
There is an undercurrent that surfaces intermittently throughout the play, and that is the trade off that one makes when one puts financial success ahead of family and traditions.
There lies the old cliché—nobody has it all.
This rings true to many cultures that succumb to assimilation, but certainly to Jews.
This theme is at the core of great films like Sunshine and Avalon, but never has its impact been so intense and yet so compact as with The Lehman Trilogy.
This is a must see, for Jews and for all.
The Lehman Trilogy continues until 20 September.
Rachel Kovacs, City University of New York, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org