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Wednesday 26 June 2019

The Lehman Trilogy, Play, by Stefano Massini directed by Sam Mendes, National Theatre Production transfer to Piccadilly Theatre London, 10* out of 10

A revolving glass cube which functions as open plan office, outfitters shop and home space with silhouettes of towns and cities projected on a background giant screen; three eminently capable actors; this is all that director Sam Mendes needs to tell Stefano Massini’s version of the story of the three Lehman Brothers from Rimpar in Bavaria. The play charts their and their descendants’ rebirths and transformations, from arrival in New York to Montgomery, Alabama and back to New York to the family businesses’ meteoric rise, slow decline and sudden fall. Highly recommended.

In 1844 the 22-year-old Chayim soon to be Henry Lehman (Simon Russell-Beale), son of religious Jewish parents, emigrates from Rimpar near W├╝rzburg in Bavaria to Montgomery Alabama where he opens an outfitters shop for ladies and gentlemen. Among other things, he sells cotton fabrics which are produced in the Northern States of the Union from the cotton grown by rich farmers and picked by their black slaves. He is soon joined by his brother Emmanuel (Ben Miles) and in 1850 by the youngest, Mayer Lehman (Adam Godley). With a peculiar internal dynamic of conflict and mediation among the three brothers, they are constantly striving to expand, extend and transform their business with an irrepressible entrepreneurial instinct to take advantage of the opportunities they identify in the New World. For them and their descendants, business and family life merge as the business moves from retail tailoring, via commodity brokerage to finance. As time goes by, the Lehman family climbs the economic and social ladder right to the top, but a significant element of business and reputational risk remains to the family name after transfer from family business to public company.

Italian author Stefano Massini has an unusual background, as his Roman Catholic parents sent him both to Italian state schools and Jewish academy. He speaks Hebrew (as well as Arabic) and captures the changing role of religious observance in the Lehman family knowledgeably and authoritatively. The Lehman Trilogy started as a radio play in 2012 and gained international fame in its Italian theatre version directed by the late great Luca Ronconi at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. It has been translated in more than 11 languages since. The very good English translation is by Mirella Cheeseman and the play is adapted by Ben Power.

Director Sam Mendes and his creative team, of which award-winning set designer Es Devlin, movement director Polly Bennett and Video designer Luke Halls deserve special mention, manage to make this single play entertaining and watchable. Lehman Trilogy is a single play; trilogy here refers either to the original three brothers or the three acts of the play or perhaps the three never- boring hours of its length. The Lehman Trilogy provides the three outstanding actors, who slip in and out of various roles with a significant and, no doubt enjoyable challenge. Simon Russell-Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley meet it brilliantly.

Interesting, entertaining and informative the Lehman Trilogy has what it takes to be one of the highlights of great new theatre in the 2018/2019 season. Don’t miss it.

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