One of the early factors that contributed to the massive success of the Lehman Brothers – the power they had in the US, their huge business growth and its eventual demise – was their understanding of the difference between just selling a product, and actually marketing it so that people understood its value and wanted, needed, to buy more. Allow me to illustrate here:
The Lehman Trilogy is in its entirety, truly and wholly epic
I could “sell” you Stefano Massini's 2013 The Lehman Trilogy – translated and adapted here for its debut in the UK by Ben Power – as a 3 ½ hour journey through the 150+ years of the Lehman family leading up to the 2008 crash, as told predominately in the third person monologue style of epic poetry by three white males. Which is factually a correct sell and so will have its appeal… to some.
But to market this correctly, we may have to delve a little further….
First recognise that this is another opportunity to see Sam Mendes continue on his never ending journey of getting better and better and better. I’m not sure why this man isn’t the NT Artistic Director now and forever – surely the call of Bond and other such B-movies can’t be offering him more money (inserts ironic emoticon). The deftness with which Mendes uses every second of every detail to create a richness of depth that both politely invites and angrily demands your attention is phenomenal. All the more so because you can’t quite tell what he’s done. Again. That is marketing reason alone to go see this.
But then there are the hypnotic, impassioned Titan-esque performances by Ben Miles, Adam Godfrey and – the champion in this Battle of the Acting Gods – Simon Russell Beale. Having firmly laid the foundations by portraying the immigrant dreams of each brother arriving to the US in the late 1840s, their continuous onstage presence sees them each die, mourn, become their doctors, rabbis, allies, enemies, and even wives and children (both infant and adult). And with no air of pretence, no costume change or glow of light, they let us in to the pretence – such as when the local Rabbi (played by Beale) reminds the brothers that the dying wishes of their eldest sibling, Henry (played by Beale) was to grow the business to New York. The Narrator hastily points out that this event may not have actually happened but that it works here as a theatrical device – and if you haven’t guessed, said Narrator is at this point being played by Beale. Yet all throughout the self-knowingness of this scene, he still manages to involve us in a way that makes us believe the reality over the theatricality – with not a single syllable of a single word being wasted.
We also need to acknowledge Es Devlin's exquisite, deceptively simple, design that creates, at first glance, the typical Wall Street style glass-walled office space that gleams in shiny soullessness as it resides in the raised centre of the stage. But it becomes as much a part of the storytelling itself as areas are created and recreated into, amongst other things, the first small Lehman shop, the ever-growing large yellow and black sign on the storefront window, the tightrope walkers’ tightrope outside the Wall Street Stock Exchange. At times, it revolves purely to allow the years to pass, the mood to change, the pace to quicken and the actors to move with a choreography that creates and controls sightlines with subtlety and yet with maximum impact.
And we must highlight the wrappings, often overlooked when selling product. Mendes ably blends filmic and staging directorial cues together with music, video, projection and lighting all having a cinematic grandiose we are used to seeing in film to aide the dramatic build and tease out our emotional response – but so intrinsically and necessary do they feel here as to feel invented for the stage.
The single piano we see played downstage underscores, punctuates and is even acknowledged by the characters before us – but it always adds to, rather than detracts from the world being created. As does Luke Halls’ panoramic video projection that encircles the box set, running predominantly monochrome footage reminiscent of newsreel from the time, that adeptly carries us through the years; whether through location (arriving at New York Harbor), events (encompassing the stage with the burning of the cotton plantations), or emotion (bringing figurative and literal colour to the symbolic dreams the men recount for us).
So it’s fair to say that trying to market rather than sell, creates a rather more wordy description. But this still falls short of truly extolling the full virtues of what is – make no mistake – a truly remarkable masterpiece of theatre; the likes of which comes around once a decade if we're lucky. There is so much talent at play that it makes your heart race, your body tingle and your mind sharpen – and this just cannot be fairly recreated by words.
Yet that is my job here, so….. Perhaps the dual meaning of one particular word seems fitting…
As a style or genre of theatre – with its scale, its rhetoric and its rhythmic structure – this could be seen as comparative to an Homeric epic [noun – def. long poem, narrating deeds of historic figures].
But in terms of judging and comparing this in terms of acting quality, writing, direction, design and all round theatricality, The Lehman Trilogy is in its entirety, truly and wholly epic [adj – def. FUCKING AWESOME]. Miss this and despair to equally epic proportions.