At first look, the 2008 financial crisis wouldn’t appear to offer promising artistic opportunity.
Credit default swaps and the convoluted workings of subprime mortgages would seem more at home between the pages of the Financial Times than on the stage of the National Theatre. And simply hearing the words ‘collateralised debt obligation’ is enough to send the best of us into an instant coma – which probably helped get us into trouble the first place.
But, thankfully, Sam Mendes sees things a little differently from the rest of us, otherwise we wouldn't have this hugely entertaining epic drama spanning more than 160 years.
He reportedly first saw Stefano Massini’s play in Milan, and loved it so much he approached The National Theatre about staging an English-Language version. After Mendes’s phenomenal success with The Ferryman, not to mention the small matter of a couple of critically-acclaimed Bond films, you can’t imagine there was much hesitation. And he doesn't disappoint, with Ben Power's adaptation being a real triumph.
The trilogy draws us a long way away from the shiny glass towers of Wall St. Harking back to 1844, when the three Lehman siblings were Bavarian Jewish migrants newly arrived in America. The play opens with Henry Lehman, fresh off the boat with the earnest hope of opportunity in his eyes. He sets up a modest fabric business in a tiny store, and his brothers, Mayer and Emanuel, soon follow his lead from Germany.
From such meagre beginnings unfurls an almost poetic story that maps their travails as they move from fabrics to cotton brokering to banking – in the process leaving they rural origin for New York. Surviving the civil war and the Great Depression their enterprise somehow spawns the multi-billion dollar empire of this millennium.
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But this is more than a simple recounting of the series of decisions that led to the collapse of the financial world and of one of its largest institutions. Such stories have already been well told elsewhere, in films such as The Big Short. The Lehman Trilogy doesn't concern itself with the mechanisms. Instead, it places the events within the context of a longer arc of time and asks us the more profound question, how did we get to this point?
At it's outset, the tale is the epitome of the American Dream. The brothers honest endeavour lifts them from nothing - they spot opportunities to make money, but by filling a need from the industry they know so intimately. It's beautifully told and genuinely heart-warming.
Companies love to play up their heritage in order to be seen as relatable. And it could be said that reviving the company's homespun history merely serves to paint a humanising layer of gloss over the damage it subsequently wrought. But here it works to a greater purpose, as it's drawn into starker and starker contrast from what it becomes as we move forward in time.
As sons inherit from fathers, having been brought up in vastly different and more privileged environments than their elders, the play smartly shows how easy it is for guiding principles to shift as companies are handed down. And the dynamics between generations becomes its most interesting aspect. The young strive to push in their own directions as their elders, even with those with great success behind them, are deemed past it. For all the gains, though, it's palpable how different events feel is as it draws towards modern day. The humane warmth of the brothers lost - in it's place a coldness, and an overriding impersonal detachment.
For all the drama does to play out the failures within the company, it doesn't lay the entire blame at it's feet. It also cleverly shows how societal changes bore some responsibility. With the birth of the stock market came the revolutionary notion that a business's worth was not just in it's material assets but in an idea of it, and in people's confidence in that idea.
You're left to ask whether everything that happens after is the inevitable conclusion of this fundamental change in the human psyche. And it's interesting to wonder whether without it, financial institutions would have followed the path they did.
The performances of the three leads are absolutely first class. Simon Russell Beale (Henry), Ben Miles (Emanuel) and Adam Godley (Mayer) not only play the brothers and their offspring, but also morph in and out of all other characters – a menagerie of seasoned plantation owners, nubile nineteen-year-old wives, whiny three-year-olds, and husky rabbis. It means they're all onstage throughout the three hour-plus duration, no mean feat. But it provides for great humour and breaks up the narration by which the characters tell the story.
Es Devlin's set is expertly constructed. The revolving glass-walled office is set in front of a giant panoramic screen, transporting you from downtown Manhattan to the cotton fields of Alabama.
By the close you still won't be able to explain the difference between a credit default swap and a collateralised debt obligation, but you'll have a fascinating and unexpected new perspective on a story you thought you knew all too well. And you'll have been thoroughly entertained into the bargain.
The Lehman Trilogy is on at the National Theatre until 20 October 2018.