? The Lehman Trilogy (2019) – National Theatre Live film: Review 


Writer: Stefano Massini 

Adaption into English: Ben Power 

Director: Sam Mendes 

Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Adam 

Godley and Ben Miles 

Set design: Es Devlin 

Costume design: Katrina Lindsay 

Music and sound design: Nick Powell 

Video design: Luke Halls 

Lighting design: Jon Clark

Running time of National Live Film – three hours, 40 minutes – including two twenty minute intervals

The Lehman Trilogy – the NT Live Film is being screened again on May 25, 2020

Astounding, astonishing, mesmerising, awe inspiring: That is what I felt after staggering out from watching the film broadcast/recording of The Lehman Trilogy at The Fugard Theatre Bioscope in Cape Town. The screening on Monday, January 20, 2020 was sold out. The National Theatre Live film will be screened again on May 25, 2020 at The Fugard Theatre. I advise you to book. Do not miss out on this mind blowing intersection of live theatre and film on the big screen.

The Lehman Trilogy at the Fugard is a National Theatre (UK) Live film recording/broadcast of Sam Mendes’ award winning production which opened in London in 2018, with a further season in 2019. It will be on in New York in March 2020. The London production (which recently wrapped up its run) starred Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles. 

The idea behind National Theatre Live is to bring the National stage productions to audiences – on film – recording the productions live- in front of audience, simulating the experience of watching it in the National Theatre

During NT Live films, the stage is periodically featured, depicting the audience, watching the play. We are watching the film of the play. In this situation, we are watching in a theatre in Cape Town, at The Fugard Theatre. 

This is the 9th year of the Fugard Bioscope. Its programmes include NT Live films as well as films from ballet, opera and ad hoc titles. I term these films as “recordings” as they are not adaptions of live theatre but filmed broadcasts of live performance.

The Lehman Trilogy is the most astounding title that I have seen in the NT Live library. It is not only an exceptional play with a lyrical, poetic script, brilliant performances, stunning design, stirring music and direction but the film recording/transmission works as a film in its own right. I have not seen the play in situ at The National so I cannot compare the film to the live experience, but taking the filmed play as a stand-alone work of art, I don’t hesitate to give The Lehman Trilogy, five stars.

About the Lehman Trilogy:

For those readers who do not know, The Lehman Trilogy was written by Italian dramatist, Stefano Massini, and aired as a five hour radio play in 2012. It was then staged and translated into French and other languages. Ben Power subsequently adapted the text into English. Sam Mendes came on board for 2018/2019 seasons in London, for The National Theatre. Mendes whittled down a sizable cast (12) to three artists playing multiple roles (including female and child roles) as well as principle roles of the three Lehman brothers who were the founding fathers of the banking dynasty Lehman Brothers – which went into liquidation in 2008 

The play opened in 2018 in London at the Royal National Theatre at the Lyttelton Theatre, with a further run at the West End Piccadilly Theatre, from May to August 2019.

Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles are brilliant as they shift characters, gender and age. They remain dressed in 19th century frock coats. 

Back to the film: Characterisation is through gesture, voice, body. Mendes’ direction is precise as he masterfully moves the three through period, scene and context. Collectively the actors received the nomination for the Olivier Award for best actor.

Reading up on the play, some reviewers have quibbled with aspects of the text and argue that the writer side steps the specifics of Lehman’s downfall and in its role of the financial crisis in 2008. In my opinion, this is missing the point. The Lehman Trilogy is not a documentary. It is not meant to be a documentary. It is a piece of art. At the heart, it is about dreams, memories; our need to invent ourselves; reinvent ourselves and create our own stories; histories and mythologies.

Writer Stefano Massini has deliberately fictionalised aspects of Lehman history to conjure up heightened images of the trajectory of the three Lehman brothers – founding fathers of a 164 year financial dynasty. For instance, in the second part of The Lehman Trilogy, reference is made to a Solomon Paprinskij who is featured walking precariously on a steel wire in New York, close to the Stock Exchange which had been recently established.

While watching The Lehman Trilogy, I am thinking: “I have never heard of a Solomon Paprinskij.” Wire walkers have become immortalised in books and film but this a name that doesn’t ring a bell. During one of the intervals (there are two intervals),I ask someone I know if he has heard about Solomon Paprinskij. He is a person who is well read and would be likely to know about a Jewish wire walker who intersects with the Lehman story. Is it true- was there a Solomon Paprinskij? I ask. He answers: “Sure. Absolutely. Of course, yes. I have heard of him.” Well, it is not true as I learn from Google. We as viewers want to believe in this man on the wire but he is “made up”. Investors want to believe their brokers who promise them grand returns; wealth; by buying and selling numbers on a screen. Solomon Paprinskij is an effigy which evokes an era where the sky was the limit. Money markets were open to all. It didn’t matter where you were from and your social status. People felt invincible; immortal. Everything and anything was possible. The man on the wire balanced on a thin wire- until he could not.

Another example of fictionalising and re-imaging fact in the play is when we see Philip Lehman who is the brains trust of the family. He charted the company from family start-up as a shopkele in Alabama, supplying workers on cotton fields with goods to financial empire. In the play, we watch entranced as he hones his skills as a merchant of finance. We see him observing a small person of stature as he bamboozles crowds, with sleight of hand card tricks. This is street theatre, with the swell of migrants hustling to make a buck.  Philip stands for hours until he figures out the trick. This is how he goes forward, we are told; building the Lehman Empire; always being prepared, not leaving anything to chance. From what I have read, this interaction with the card trickster is also made up. As with the spectre of the fictional Jewish migrant, Solomon Paprinskij on a wire, this image is emblematic of the magic of Philip Lehman as mythical rainmaker who accounted for all the odds.

Sure, The Lehman Trilogy traces the trajectory of an empire through the tracking of three brothers who left Bavaria in Germany in the 1840s, for a new life in America. Sure it pings against the American Dream and all that. Yes, we know that America is not in great nick. Then again, there is widespread despair globally with dreams which have soured. There are always people who leave one place for another place; in search of better prospects.  For me, the play transcends the fact that it was inspired by a specific family who went from shmatters to extreme wealth.  The Lehman family provides a framework to interrogate what it means to leave a place/country and its customs, belief systems, rituals, language and refigure one’s identity somewhere else.

Playwright Massini has used Jewish mourning rituals to measure how old systems are shed; discarded. When the first brother dies, the Jewish mourning observance of Shiva (mourning period of seven days after a death) is adhered to as well as the extended mourning period of thirty days (Shloshim). By the time the third brother dies, time is money on Wall Street and a unit of three minutes of silence is observed to mark his passing.

I don’t see it as a lament for loss of a specific system of belief – the fact that the Jewish observance – has been ditched. People find new and alternative ways of celebrating, affirming and marking events which are removed from organised religion and which bring meaning and affirmation to their lives. In America, Thanksgiving is a good example – where people can come together and celebrate – regardless of religious affiliation. Gender reveal parties have become popular.

In the Lehman Trilogy, I see the absence of death rituals as symptomatic of greater sense of loss and alienation. Once the brothers dealt in “real” goods – cotton, railroads, and computers. Eventually, not even money is the commodity, it is all about derivatives and other financial instruments. It is not “real”. It exists on screens on the stock exchange with numbers flickering and then flashing on computer screens. There is a loss of human connection. The disconnection is palpable in the family. Never mind that there is no longer a hint of accent to the old country; there is a gulf and disconnect in the family; in the community; in the office space. People no longer commune in a boardroom with fancy chairs, white tulips, dressed up, ready to face each other. They work solo at desks, shirt sleeves up, eyes on the screen. Time is intertwined with money. Three minutes is what you get when you die. No one has time to mourn; to recall; to remember; to relate.

I see The Lehman Trilogy as a memory play which materialises out in the glass box on stage. British designer Es Devlin’s design is more of an installation, than a set. The box conjures up the sense of the Manhattan skyline looking like a “magical music box”, which is how the first brother Jack Lehman described the city, when he arrived from Germany in 1844. Initially he set up a shop in Alabama where goods were traded- fabrics, cotton and then later came the move into money and setting up the empire in New York.

The brothers scrawl on the walls of the glass – as the business name changes. The name is important to them. It signifies what they do and what they represent. It is their name; identity.  Later on, the word “buy” is scribbled onto the walls. Money is the now the leitmotif. But the traces of the name Lehman, Lehman Brothers, Lehman Bank – remain like palimpsests from the past. The past asserts itself into the present. Coupled with the glass office, images of the changing landscape, skylines are projected, creating a wondrous interplay between light, shadow, figures.

Design: The glass box is like another character- dressed as a swanky corporate office with Eames swivel chairs and boardroom table. There is a clock to mark time and money. A vase of white tulips stands as silent witness. Boxes- Lehman banker’s boxers- are used as props. The boxes are containers of history and memory and are moved about by the actors to signify shifts in the narrative. In this glass block office, the protagonists trace themselves as how they were in the old country; what they were and as they take the next step in climb upwards – and then the fall.

There are times when as an arts writer, I encounter works which are off-the-charts and The Lehman Trilogy is one of the works. In this instance, I am reviewing a recording; a broadcast of the play. I did not see the play live. What is so extraordinary is that the film captures the awe that I see on the faces of the audience who were in that theatre. Broadcasts of films can be rather flat. The camera directs our gaze so we have a sense of being there in the theatre, but we get a limited view of the play. I see that Mendes’ company, Neal Productions has co-produced this film with the National. The company produced his Oscar nominated film, 1917.  I could not locate credits for the NT Live film of The Lehman Trilogy, regarding the DOP (director of photography) but I am assuming that Mendes was involved with the configuration of the cameras to relay the a sense of theatre in the round. The set in motion has a filmic quality which is then tracked by the camera moving around the stage, capturing the live performance into the film broadcast.

Photo: The Lehman Trilogy with Simon Rusell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley. Pic: Stephanie Berger/NT Live

Cinema ?/Fugard Bioscope travel advisory

? Fugard Bioscope World Arts Cinema Season: Mondays October 7, 2019 until August 31, 2020. In the main, there are two screening at 3pm and 7pm for each title, but there is one screening, 7pm, for The Lehman Trilogy (as it is long- over three hours) and there are three screenings for Fleabag – see below for deets. ?

Additional presentations of NT Live titles have been added to the 2020 Fugard Bioscope World Arts Cinema Season: 

✔️The Lehman Trilogy –Monday May 25, 2020, 7pm

✔️Fleabag- Monday April 27 – three screenings at 3pm, 5pm and 7pm

✔️ Tickets for the Fugard Bioscope: R120

✔️ Bookings: https://www.thefugard.com/ or box office on 021 461 4554. Discount of 20% discount for Friends of the Fugard and seniors; 10% discount for scholars. Discounted tickets available through the box office

✔️ Fugard Theatre address: Corner Caledon and Lower Buitenkant Street, District Six, Cape Town, 8001

✔️ Eats: Drinks (alcoholic and soft drinks), coffee, sweets, nibbles, popcorn, pizzas, samosas.  Rooftop bar is open when the weather is decent.