Play Report: The Lehman Trilogy

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Your Humble Blogger went to the National Theatre Live cinema presentation of The Lehman Trilogy. It is a remarkable production of a remarkable play; I wish I had gone to see it when it was in New York, but it was expensive and I was busy, and it is very difficult for me to overcome those things. But it was a powerful experience to watch on the screen, and must have been overwhelming in the actual theater.

It’s story (or chamber) theater, at least in essence, which I love—the three actors all combine narration and embodiment, each taking the lead Lehman in a different generation (more or less) as well as playing all the supporting characters and filling out the background. They are all terrific actors—Simon Russell Beale is pretty much the pre-eminent Shakespearian actor of my generation, Adam Godley has been memorable in a bunch of stuff on TV in England, and while I don’t actually remember Ben Miles from anything in particular, he was magnetic and powerful—and they straddle that line where the audience is able to enjoy the individual characterizations while still keeping in mind the actor/character that plays them all. Is that at all clear? I mean that whether you think of the guy onstage as ‘Simon Russell Beale’ or as ‘the short stout one’ or as ‘Herbert’, you’re aware that it’s the same guy throughout, whether he’s playing Herbert or Philip or Ruth or Pete or George, or the governor of Alabama or the owner of a diner or a tightrope walker. He’s actually playing the guy who (along with his two buddies) is telling us this story, and he inhabits other characters as necessary. You know?

The first thing I remember that used that technique was The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, in the televised version of the David Edgar plays, and which (as I’ve mentioned here more than once) blew the top of my teenaged head off as far as the possibilities of theater went. I imagine that The Lehman Trilogy has blown the top of some kids’ heads off as well, although I suppose kids are more sophisticated than they used to be. And the production of Lehman is incredibly sophisticated, too. The use of projection on the cyc is really finely done (perhaps it was necessary to suffer through a few years of clumsy gimmickry to make possible to use projection in a restrained and effective manner), and the live musical accompaniment is extraordinary, and while the production uses the story-theater technique of having the actors move around tables, chairs and boxes to indicate a variety of settings on an otherwise nearly-empty stage, that nearly-empty stage is a glass box on a platform that silently revolves in either direction at a variety of speeds. It’s not just a three guys with a couple of packing crates (or in this case bankers boxes) after all.

A few years ago, I went through a stretch when almost every play I saw or read seemed to be uninteresting or unpleasant, and I wondered if perhaps I just didn’t like plays very much after all. And if I did like plays, what was it that I liked about them? And I came to the conclusion that what I liked was storytelling. Plays that are focused on storytelling, or on words and language, tend to spark my interest. I just read Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, by Sam Steiner, which is in many ways just about the domestic squabbles of unpleasant affluent people, but it kept me interested through the script because it is also about language. And The Lehman Trilogy is fundamentally about the domestic (and occasionally professional) squabbles of unpleasant affluent people, and yet it’s brilliant theater because it’s also about storytelling.

I suspect I will still be hearing some of the language in my head for some time. Little repeated phrases of ordinary words—I’ll take my leave, Henry is always right, I have a problem with that, the handle that sticks—have been rattling around in my brain in the last couple of days, like Shakespeare phrases do after I see one of his plays. I could go on… there’s a lot to digest about the play, its flaws and virtues, its history and future, its script and production, but mostly I wanted to say: it’s a remarkable thing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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