The Lehman Trilogy review – masterful performances animate a flawed project

<span>Adrian Schiller in the Lehman Trilogy, which runs at Theatre Royal Sydney until 24 March.</span><span>Photograph: Daniel Boud</span>
Adrian Schiller in the Lehman Trilogy, which runs at Theatre Royal Sydney until 24 March.Photograph: Daniel Boud

Almost 16 years after the collapse that triggered global financial panic, The Lehman Trilogy lands on Australian stages this month, to tell the story of the bank that was not, in fact, too big to fail. And if you think you’ve heard it all, not quite: Ben Power’s play, adapted from Stefano Massini’s Italian text and directed by Academy Award winner Sam Mendes in this Tony Award-winning production, is the story of the family who built the bank.

Framed as a corporate thriller, the play opens in an empty boardroom in midtown Manhattan, strewn with file boxes, a janitor tidying the room while a radio unspools news headlines: Lehman has collapsed, and the world is waiting to hear whether or not it will be bailed out. We then zoom back to 1844, and the arrival on a New York dock of Heyum Lehmann, son of a Jewish cattle merchant from Rimpar, Bavaria, ready to stake his own claim to a slice of the American dream – under his newly anglicised name: “Henry Lehman” (Adrian Schiller).

Over the next three and a half hours – three hour-long acts with two intervals – we whirl through 164 years of a family saga-cum-potted history of capitalism. Henry’s younger brothers Emanuel (Howard W. Overshown) and Mayer (Aaron Krohn) join him, and together they transform his clothing store in Montgomery, Alabama, into a trading post for raw cotton. Wives are acquired, children born, cotton is abandoned for coffee, Alabama is abandoned for New York, the family’s deep-seated Jewish European identity is shed, and the Lehman Brothers’ enterprise inexorably moves further and further away from the business of buying and selling tangible things and into the abstract realm of pure finance. And then, the downfall.

On the face of it, it’s a compelling premise: a story of American capitalism through the prism of a family business; a tale of brothers and sons and fathers and boardrooms that has a whiff of Succession, but fuelled with by-the-bootstraps immigrant gumption.

Related: The Lehman Trilogy review – Sam Mendes’ banking saga returns with dividends

Sure, it’s ambitious: three and a half hours is not much time to tell 164 years of family history – let alone with a subplot of American capitalism. Massini, an Italian playwright, knew this: his text started life as a radio play, before evolving into a five-hour play, then a 700-page novel. But this National Theatre production, which premiered in 2018 before transferring to the West End and Broadway, has serious pedigree: Mendes is responsible for West End and Broadway hits such as Cabaret and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice; Power has form in adapting hefty texts (Paradise Lost) and corporate tales (Enron); and Es Devlin is arguably the best (and certainly the most innovative) designer working in theatre.

This A-team has made some smart choices. Power and Mendes keep Massini’s oratorical free-verse style, and concentrate the tale on just three actors, who initially play the brothers before devolving into countless other roles, with nothing other than a change of accent, a change of posture or expression, a gesture.

The set features a rotating glass box-as-boardroom in which document boxes are reconfigured as if they were building blocks, and various names and numbers are written and sometimes erased on walls in marker. At the back of the stage, a curved, panoramic video screen projects imagery that is initially naturalistic and location-based – New York Harbour, Alabama fields, the 21st century New York City skyline – but becomes increasingly abstract and digitalised as we approach the rarefied atmosphere of “pure finance”.

Related: Lehman Brothers collapse: where are the key figures now?

All of this keeps a sense of movement and playfulness that animates what can otherwise feel dry. In stripping the meat of the family saga down to its bones (including excising whole chapters of family and corporate history and branches of the Lehman tree), you lose a lot of what made Massini’s novel a satisfying human tale, and are left with a lot of talk about commerce and capitalist theory, and a breathless timeline that whizzes through major milestones such as the Civil War.

The performances by this very fine trio of actors are the essential ingredient – commanding our attention, bringing even fleeting characters to vivid life, and eliciting the chuckles and warm empathy that make sure the audience has skin in the emotional game.

The project is flawed, however. At its core, this is a story of white men behaving – for the most part – badly. Women barely figure and when they do, they’re thinly sketched and comic: a coquette identified by the colour of her frock or style of hat; a dull-but-dutiful wife; a resentful, haranguing wife. Too many of the play’s necessary laughs are wrung from men playing caricatures of women.

Then there is the decision to tell the story of capitalism in America without slavery – something that American critics rightfully called out when the play transferred there, leading to small, insufficient amendments (including a clunking moment in Act 1 where one of the Lehmans’ neighbours stops by to say that slavery is evil, before disappearing in a puff of deus ex machina smoke). This is a story of capitalism that spends more time telling us about the individual stockbrokers who took their own lives on the first day of the Great Depression than it does on any of the millions of Americans who died building the nation’s wealth.

As a family saga, The Lehman Trilogy lacks flesh and stakes; as a story of American capitalism, it feels incomplete and too lightly sketched.

  • The Lehman Trilogy runs at Theatre Royal Sydney until 24 March 2024