An intricately detailed epic on the Lehman brothers, The Lehman Trilogy has been a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic
The play is a full three-and-a-half hour epic that tells the story of the Lehman brothers — three Jewish immigrants from Germany who came to America in 1844 and founded what would become one of the most influential and notorious banks in history.
But the bee found a rather sizeable chunk of the play to be a disappointing and tedious narration of historical facts, interspersed with a few theatrical gimmicks. The play is divided into three acts, each covering a different generation of Lehmans.
The three acts in the show correspond to three different generations of Lehmans
The first act is the perhaps the most tedious. It shows how Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman arrived in America in the mid-19th century and established their business as cotton traders in Alabama. The actors switch roles and accents to portray various characters, such as slaves, merchants and politicians. Their versatility is admirable, but the bee thought that it was rather slow-paced, focusing on an intricate level of detail that was not required to follow for the audience to go through the firm’s journey and that the audience was bound to forget within minutes of leaving the theatre.
The second act focuses on Philip Lehman and his son Robert, who transformed the family business into an investment bank on Wall Street. The play explores, but not in as much depth as the bee would have liked, the motivations and personalities of these characters, showing how they interacted with their clients and competitors, how they related to their respective families and children, and also how they made sense of the changing economic circumstances around them. However, at times, the bee did feel like the exploration was rather superficial, and the play simply degenerated into a dry recitation of events and facts.
The third act covers the final years of the Lehman Brothers under Robert's son Herbert and his successors. In covering the lead-up to the crisis, the play leaves much to be desired in terms of emotional connect or moral reflections on what went wrong, how, and who was responsible, not to mention skipping the facts and events of the global crisis altogether, as though the story depicted in the play was only written up until 2007 and did not cover 2008.
Spectacularly versatile actors are able to rescue this play, but only somewhat
The performance of the three actors who play all the roles, Michael Balogun, Hadley Fraser and Nigel Lindsay, was nothing short of astounding. They are phenomenal at switching between characters with different accents, ages and personalities. They portray not only the three original brothers (Henry, Emanuel and Mayer), but also their sons, wives, grandchildren and various other people they encounter along their journey.
However, while the bee could appreciate the versatility and talent of the three actors playing a dozen different roles between them, the bee could not appreciate why the play involved such little dramatisation. In fact, most of the play was narrated by the three actors, that is to say, narrated as though they were narrators speaking directly to the audience, breaking down the fourth wall. Conversations between the characters were too few and far between. The play could have benefitted with a greater interaction between the characters, as the monologue format got tedious at times.
The set design is minimalist and elegant, but not quite effective in the bee’s humble opinion. A rotating glass cube that serves as a boardroom, a shop, a home and more adorns the stage and is the only thing on stage for the duration of the whole play. However, the act of trying to make these rooms multi-purpose by simply rotating the cube and moving a few props and furniture around did not work. The rooms ended up looking rather disjointed and incoherent, not amenable to visualising as one venue or another.
Further, the play is too long (over three hours), too slow (with many unnecessary pauses) and too shallow (with no depth or insight). If you are looking for a compelling drama about finance, history or family dynamics, this is not it. Instead, with The Lehman Trilogy, you should expect a drama that’s somewhat about family and somewhat about business and somewhat about historical facts, dates and events, without delivering a compelling, unforgettable narrative on any of these dimensions.
No doubt, this play is an epic, intense, intergenerational drama, packed with humour, emotion and insight into how a family business became a global empire. The bee only wishes the play had further explored how the empire collapsed under its own weight, and that the characters had dramatised their monologues a little so that we could see how the actors interacted with each other.
Watched March 2023 at Gillian Lynne Theatre, London