The National Theatre production of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy is perhaps as best an execution of a writer’s script as I have yet seen. The acting from its cast of three — Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley each giving their all — is phenomenal, incredibly dynamic throughout (if not always “virtuosic” as so deemed by the critics). The direction from Sam Mendes is ceaselessly thoughtful, interesting, and entertaining — the three years “without a destination” that he spent crafting the show alongside the writers and actors show their value in every scene. And the set design, too, deserves to be singled out for providing a playground for three actors to undertake an odyssey over three and a half hours without ever feeling trapped by the space around them. Miraculously, this lengthy run time never feels nearly as boring as some of the far shorter productions we’ve seen, and the pacing clicks along rapidly to the benefit of all involved. The reviews are correct to call this “Theatre at its best” — I just have one glaring issue.
In 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers was largely responsible for the worst American financial crisis since the Great Depression, leaving millions of people all but penniless. Lehman Brothers, as all good capitalists do, had gotten greedy — in spite of the obvious cracks in the United States housing market, Lehman Brothers in 2007 “underwrote more mortgage-backed securities than any other firm, accumulating an $85 billion portfolio, or four times its shareholders’ equity” (https://www.investopedia.com/articles/economics/09/lehman-brothers-collapse.asp). It promised far, far more money to its shareholders than existed, and when the shareholders began to suspect this was the case, Lehman Brothers stock plunged dramatically over the course of several weeks. This set off a series of chain reactions which temporarily ruined the global stock market at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency, and it would take a long time and grueling work for the affected millions to build back what they had lost.
But you wouldn’t learn that from watching The Lehman Trilogy.
And that is precisely my contention with this show: with the exception of Bobby Lehman, who transforms suddenly into a cartoonish supervillain in the middle of Act Three, every Lehman brother is presented almost entirely sympathetically. Though my classmate Alex argues that works from the perspective of the “bad guys” often present them in a more understanding light than they might otherwise be given, The Lehman Trilogy never indicts the bad guys in the end like, say, Breaking Bad or Double Indemnity do. Here, we are supposed to mourn Henry Lehman (who is “always right,” we are sincerely assured time and again), and when a character such as Phillip Lehman is not properly mourned by the other characters, we are supposed to mourn that, the failure to mourn such a man. To watch The Lehman Trilogy is to be presented with the position that the Lehman Brothers are fundamentally good — that capitalism is fundamentally good — that it is only when an exception like Bobby Lehman comes along that the system begins to crack. Bobby Lehman, of course, is presented with sunglasses resembling those of Major Arnold Ernst Toht (the melting Nazi guy) in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and out of nowhere, he proclaims that he wants “Lehman to live… FOREVER!”, as dramatic lighting singles him out from the rest of the world around him. His death scene (which, though theatrically mesmerizing, is intentionally far from reality) makes a twitching insect out of Bobby Lehman, as well. In such a presentation, the audience is assured that capitalists like us in the audience (or better yet, like the New York elite in the Broadway audience) are not in the problem — only Bobby Lehman is the problem. Well, Bobby Lehman and the Hungarian, who is so called for the duration of the third act, and who is also reminiscent of the cartoonish oil tycoon baddie from 2011’s The Muppets.
Again, the execution of the script is masterful — everyone involved, including Stefano Massini for his work in the larger part of the show, ought to be praised highly. But, when you present as the final scene the Lehman Brothers singing the Mourner’s fucking Kaddish over the Lehman Brothers, when you ask the audience to pity the Lehman Brothers for the 2008 financial crisis, you are missing too great a point to be forgiven. If perhaps the intro and outro of the 2008 financial crisis had been eliminated, if we were simply given another side of the family between their coming to America and the Great Depression, that might work as a presentation of another side of things. But when you put the 2008 financial crisis right in front of us and, instead of condemning the actions of our characters for their part in it, ask us to empathize with them for being hurt by it, you’re lying to us. And you’re perpetuating a system which has hurt so, so many innocent people and will only continue to do so with every sympathetic portrayal of the monsters which pull its strings.
Am I saying “You’re a bad person if you like The Lehman Trilogy?” No; there are many things to like in this production, many things to love. But I am cautioning all viewers of this show to do research into the 2008 financial crisis and to interrogate the history of the Lehman Brothers corporation more than this play makes time to do, so as to not take away a false truth from this ultimately false play.