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Review: The Lehman Trilogy at The Theatre Royal

Review by Carly Fisher

If you’ve ruled out seeing the Lehman Trilogy because you’ve heard it’s 3 acts, over 3 hours long and about finance, let me start by saying, I do get it. I can’t say that this would normally grab me as a premise. However, if you’re willing to look past those very basic facts about this work, you will find yourself engaged with one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre and some of the greatest playwrighting craftsmanship you’re likely to come across. If you read no further than here, get a ticket before you miss your chance.

Following the biographical timeline of three immigrant brothers who make their way to America in the 1800s in pursuit of the so-called American dream, the play starts at the end, with the part that many of us already know - in 2008 the financial juggernaut, Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt; $613 billion in debt and throwing an already fragile economy into a total tailspin. We know it is coming and it is a clever device employed by playwright Stefano Massini and Director Sam Mendes, not only for the beautiful symmetry of a cyclical start and end, but mainly in that it instantly levels the audience - whatever you thought you knew about the Lehman story has been covered in a sound effect in the first minute. From there, we are forced to be both free and open to hearing the full story of how this giant organisation got to be quite so giant. 

The beauty of this story - and what takes it from being a potentially boring story about a financial institution’s dramatic growth - is that it is really not about the company. Sure, the company itself is an important part of it, but it is a secondary character. This is a story about three brothers, about the American dream, about innovative thinking, about familial legacy and about seeing opportunity. 

Upon the most brilliant set, designed by Es Devlin, the tale of these brothers unfolds and spins as we cross countries, generations, wars, and industries. A large glass cube, the set has only three rooms and yet whole worlds come to life within them. Filled with office style furniture and enumerate filing boxes, the set matches Mendes’ directions perfectly - by both creatives, we as an audience are asked to suspend our disbelief, to believe that these three actors are all 30+ of the characters they portray and that each area of the set is transformed for each new element of the story. A screen the width of the stage behind projects stunning images that help transport the audience through the temporal changes, again, without the actors ever leaving the glass box. When we are told it is a small shop with a black and yellow sign in which fabric and suits are sold, we believe it. When we are told it is a Greek diner in Nebraska, we believe it. When we are told we are in the stock exchange, we feel it. When we are told we are in a lounge room sitting shiva, we lament for the brothers…and so on. The set is pure magic and Devlin’s genius is to be celebrated - it all looks so simple in grey and muted office tones, and yet the space is so layered, so rich with symbolism, so very very clever…I can’t say enough about this design. It is one of the stars of the show, equal to the superb actors on stage. 

Sydney was the second time I had the pleasure of seeing this production and what I love most about seeing a show multiple times is having the opportunity to better unveil the intricacies of design and direction that the creatives leave there for us to enjoy. In seeing any show for the first time, it is the story and the acting that tend to grab most of your attention. In seeing it a second time, the small details are far more noticeable and noting this time exactly which words were written and which were erased towards the end of the third act, upon the glass windows, was exciting to behold. Again, every choice made in this show is so rich with symbolism - a true masterclass for any directors and designers who want to learn from the best of the best. 

Aaron Krohn, Howard Overshown and Adrian Schiller are the Lehman Brothers. Their skilful command of characterisation, accent work, impeccable timing and excellent connection between their fellow actors, make this show truly sing and again, I can’t describe it as anything other than a masterclass to see them in action. ‘The Head, the Arm and the Potato’ - a most astounding trio of actors. 

Massini’s text is beautifully paced - its a lot to cover in just three hours and again, this content could quickly land up very dry in the hands of a less skilled writer. Yet Massini has ensured that each minute of the show is filled with life and with a beautiful balance of respect for the past whilst highlighting the ambition of the future. Each character - and again, there are over 30 that pop up, is cleverly described so that we feel we can see them, despite the fact that neither the actors, nor the costume change at all - is so vividly described and well fleshed out that we know them despite not really seeing them. This is credit both to Massini’s writing and the expert skill of the actors to breathe such consideration and life into the text. 

All of this said, it is Sam Mendes’ vision that makes this show what it is and it is a privilege to see such expert direction in the flesh. The clever use of repetition - marrying religious symbolism with corporate gesturing, the creative use of the set - filing boxes that could be an overbearing train, a shop counter, a staircase, and more, and the ability to create whole worlds that feel detailed and alive without so much as an additional prop…these are just a few mere examples of the craftmanship of Mendes’ direction at work. I am fortunate to see a lot of theatre and it is rare to get to see such directorial vision and unique creativity at play in the way that is is offered to us in this production by Mendes. 

At the show’s conclusion, the only critique I have heard from some is that they wish that there had been more about the company’s collapse at the end…far cry from the early fears of the show being too long. My opinion is that to add that in would have been to write another show - and I hope someone does, I’d be there to see it in a flash. But this show is not about the company or its collapse, this is about the brothers and I for one am glad that we aren’t distracted from the real essence of that. 

This is the story of 3 brothers who made $2.17 a day selling suits in the South of America and who turned that small store and small earning into one of the world’s largest financial corporations in the world, worth billions and billions of dollars. And it all started with just some raw cotton. 

It is also the story of greed, capitalism and the most dangerous transition in human history - the time when those at the top realised that it was time to stop selling people essential items for fair prices - it was instead time to sell us all things we don’t need for money we don’t have…sound familiar? 

I can’t praise this production highly enough except to say that it would be a true loss to miss out. 

Image Supplied


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