Staging History in The Lehman Trilogy

I’ve been thinking about how the structure of a play itself can reflect its historiographical interests– conscious or otherwise. An interesting case in point is The Lehman Trilogy, adapted by Ben Power from an Italian play by Stefano Massini, and now playing at the National Theatre. It tells the story of the rise of the Lehman Brothers firm, from the arrival of the founding brothers in America in the 1840s to its dissolution during the crash of 2008. It is performed by only three actors– Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles– who between them take on dozens of roles– all of which, through this casting, become refractions of and variations on the original brother they played.

This multi-role casting lends cohesion and continuity to what is otherwise a sprawling story, generations passing on and passing off the torch to the next. It allows us to feel some attachment to later-generation characters who are not as fully developed as their forebears. I was surprised to learn that this was not the case with Massini’s original play: either Powers or director Sam Mendes decided to reduce the original large cast to just three. I think it works artistically for these reasons, but it also is a huge historiographical shift. Instead of an epic story with a cast of dozens, reflecting the sprawl of history, it becomes the story of three great men.

I mean this not in the sense that they are necessarily good or awesome, but that they were powerful and influential– the sense intended in the ‘great man’ theory, or great man history, a historiographical concept first attributed to Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s. It’s a succinct idea, in his words: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

By filtering the entire history of the Lehman Brothers through three actors– and attributing to them the invention of a variety of essential concepts, like that of brokers between farms and manufacturers, government-subsidized building projects, and other economic concepts I only barely understand– they become (literally, in terms of onstage imagery) the only people who can or do make history. The modern banking system is shaped by them and no one else.

This also places the emphasis on the man part of great man. Unsurprisingly, there are a fraction as many female characters as male characters, and none are very important. And because the way the female characters are depicted by these male actors– with exaggerated falsettos and coy expressions– the audience on the night I saw the performance laughed, without fail, every time a female character entered or spoke. The very presence of women in history became laughable, their very speech a joke. Naturally, the casting means that anyone who isn’t white (admittedly not many people in the world of banking, but the Lehman Brothers do get their start dealing with plantations, and there is an oft-referenced but never depicted black overseer character) also cannot exist.

While it can feel inevitable that historical stories center on men in particular– they were the ones doing everything, how could women be involved?– the case of a play like The Lehman Trilogy draws attention to the fact that such assumptions really are just assumptions, not givens. The extreme narrowing of focus forces attention onto everything that is squeezed out of the three-man frame, a reminder of all the stories that this play– and so many histories– leave out. Though artistically successful, and buoyed by three splendid performances, the decision to make three white men the center of history is not the only way to tell this, or any other story.


Top Shows of 2015

Here’s my list of my ten favorite shows of the year, in chronological order. I saw much less than last year, so it was a bit easier…

1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I was definitely very late to the Curious Incident game, but I’m so glad I finally made it. It demonstrated for me the immense empathetic capacities of theatre. More artists should be using the stage not only to explore unshared stories, but through unshared subjectivities.

2. Golem. The first show I officially saw as a critic, which was very exciting. And luckily for me, the show itself was exciting, too: one of the more original and successful uses of multimedia that I’ve seen so far, paired with truly spectacular performances. Plus, some of the music still gets stuck in my head.

3. Romeo and Juliet. This play is done so badly so much of the time, I had almost lost faith in it. But I don’t see how you could help but be deeply moved by this production, rooted in an intelligent, achingly youthful Juliet and a sensitive, guilt-ridden Romeo.

4. DruidShakespeare. I’d longed for years to get to see a full set of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, and though DruidShakespeare presented abbreviated versions of all four plays, the experience of seeing Richard II, the Henry IVs, and Henry V in succession was as interesting and moving as I always hoped it would be. I only touch on it briefly in the linked article, but highlights include Derbhle Crotty’s extraordinary Bolingbroke, Garrett Lombard’s deeply sexy Hotspur, and possibly the only cast I’ve ever seen that actually earned the name ‘gender blind.’

5. The Beaux’ Stratagem. The final entry in a series of masterfully directed comedies I saw in England, all of which derived their strength from recognizing that a comedy still must rest on the essential dignity and humanity of its characters– and in these specific cases, its female characters. Title and hilarious laddish hijinks aside, the heart and soul of the play lay with the women. And the musical numbers.

6. King John. I know, it’s hard to believe that a production of King John could make this list. It’s hard to believe that there could be a production of King John that you’d want to see twice, but that’s what James Dacre managed for the Globe. Given the recent outcry about people who dare to suggest altering Shakespeare’s texts, it provided an excellent example of the wonders a little tinkering can work.

7. Richard II. Maybe this was the year of restoring faith in Shakespeare plays I’d started to doubt in spite of myself (though after two go-rounds, I still don’t like Measure for Measure). This Richard succeeded by refusing to let the title character steal the show, instead broadening the scope of the history, allowing every character to feel important, and thus, every scene to feel propulsive. This was enabled in large part by David Sturzaker’s Bolingbroke, who, in counterpoint to Richard, quietly and stoically was led through a tragedy of his own.

8. Spring Awakening. I saw the original Spring Awakening shortly before it closed and wasn’t a fan. This production, on the other hand, was a revelation. Sign language provides a much, much more effective metaphor than rock music for the play’s central themes of miscommunication and alienation. The performers are all tremendous, and the fact that Wendla and Melchior actually look like teenagers makes a surprisingly large difference for the better.

9. Hamilton. Yeah, yeah.// EDIT: TIED WITH FUN HOME. I can’t believe I left this off at first. While Hamilton may be an unmatched musical achievement, I think Fun Home is at least as groundbreaking, and I found it more emotionally impactful (not that that means something is better, but still).

10. A View from the Bridge. I was so annoyed that I let myself miss this in London, but Russell Tovey, added to the cast for Broadway, is the ideal Rodolfo, so I’m not too mad I had to wait ’til I got back to New York. What is there to say? A sharp, clean, barebones production of a play that I personally think is nearly perfect. If Mark Strong doesn’t win a Tony, it will be a crime.

Review: The Beaux’ Stratagem

To judge from the publicity for the National Theatre’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, and indeed, from the first scene of the play itself, you might be forgiven for thinking that the main characters are the rakish ne’er-do-wells Thomas Aimwell and Frank Archer, who have spent their fortunes in London and are thus off to the country to find themselves an heiress and divide her fortune between them. Standard stuff of Restoration comedy so far. Samuel Barnett plays Aimwell, the impoverishred younger brother of a viscount, easily besotted but determined to make a go at being mercenary; Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Archer, who is posing as Aimwell’s servant (this time ‘round, he is careful to note: in the next town— which they never reach— they will switch places), is the more skilled heartbreaker, more devoutly fixed on making money.
But while Aimwell and Archer drive the plot (amazingly, Aimwell’s efforts to callously marry the lovely Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) for her money don’t go quite as planned), director Simon Godwin firmly places the play’s heart in the hands of Susannah Fielding as Mistress Sullen. She is the married woman with whom Archer becomes enamored, whose husband’s charming personality is, as is traditional, made quite plain by her married name. Beautiful and clever, her apparently stock-comic desire to commit adultery gradually gives way over the course of the first act to reveal genuine, profound unhappiness. 
Often when a director decides to turn a comedy into one character’s tragedy, it shakes the entire play out of balance and drags the tone of all the scenes into an unpleasant muddle (Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a common example). But that’s in clumsier hands than Godwin’s. Fielding anchors the play in humanity (while also being very funny herself), so that the rest of the play can soar off into batty comic delight. It’s difficult to talk about the play in much more detail without giving away the wonderful jokes behind the series of musical numbers, Aimwell’s newfound martial valor, the deadpan butler who makes friends with Archer while he is disguised as a footman, a suspicious French priest, and the band of highwaymen who nearly derail all of the lovers’ plans. 
The sheer opulence that the National Theatre’s size and budget permits is put to excellent use. There is something, in these cash-strapped days, so delightful about seeing a character who is meant to be a surprise arrival enter and, rather than recognizing him from doubling some early minor role, sharing the characters’ surprise. There is gorgeous live music (composed by Michael Bruce, music direction by Richard Hart), lovely costumes (particularly for the beaux, design by Lizzie Clachan), and a detailed but efficient multi-story set.
The Beaux’ Stratagem is another perfect example of the comic style I’ve previously praised in the works of Blanche McIntyre and Adele Thomas, where allowing characters (and especially the female characters) to have true human dignity not only makes the play funnier, but helps create a sense of forward momentum in plays that could very easily descend into giddy, directionless farce– and in the process, offering a reminder that the concluding marriages and engagements these comedies are about more than just sex. They are symbolic of the genre’s promise of renewal, and a reminder that the comic rebirths at the end of these plays are even better when they stem from something worth leaving behind. 

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I sometimes think that the most effective plays invite an audience to step into the mind and heart of someone whose point of view the have never previously had cause to consider; to spend an evening looking through someone else’s eyes. This is what The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel by Simon Stephens, achieves. 

Masterfully directed by Marianne Elliott, Curious Incident sees the world through the eyes of Christopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, confused by people but brilliant at mathematics, and determined to set the world to right when he finds his neighbor’s dog stabbed with a rake in her garden. Graham Butler presents Christopher with complete, guileless sincerity and impressive physical control. Elliott and her designers create a technological dreamscape: a black box of a set intersected with a light-up grid, projections of mathematical equations, numbers, drawings, and noises, roiling ensemble movement by Frantic Assembly’s Vicki Manderson– and Christopher at the center of it all, whose alternating coldness and intensity, when cast against this depiction of his elaborate and confusing perspective on the world, become perfectly understandable. Christopher sees his journey as an epic quest or a Sherlock Holmes adventure, and the play itself never mocks him by reminding us to think of it otherwise. 

The action is complemented by narration ‘written’ by Christopher and read out by one of his teachers, Miss Siobhan (Sarah Woodward). From her, as well as Christopher’s neighbors and parents, we get glimpses of the workings of the world outside Christopher’s mind. We see or overhear only the conversations and exchanges that Christopher does, but often we receive information from them that he does not. It’s a really remarkable and effective layering of Christopher’s subjectivity and our position as outsiders looking into his world; we are never fully pushed away from our alliance with him, but we simultaneously can fill in richer details about the ‘real’ world that all rush to the forefront in the beautiful final moments of the play. 

Curious Incident takes full advantage of the opportunities presented by live theatre (at one point literally declaring its intention of doing so) and revels in the limitations. I never thought that this might make a good movie (a far-too-rare feeling with new plays, in my opinion) and more significantly for an adaptation, I never found myself wondering about the novel. Not that I’m not curious to read it now, as I’m sure it’s very good, but the storytelling and even the narration never left me picturing words on the page, or wondering how a scene would have been illustrated with prose. The story felt not like prose slightly twisted to fit onstage, but essentially theatrical. 

The success of such an unusual story in both London and New York probably speaks for itself, at this point. But it’s always exciting to experience such a moving, well-crafted evening at the theatre. 

Review: James I and James II

For the record, the title of the first two parts of The James Plays at the National Theatre are The Key Will Keep the Lock and Day of The Innocents, respectively. I could not for the life of me remember either of these all day, and in fact misremembered the second play’s title the first time I typed it out. But you’re in good shape when the only uninteresting thing about your play is the title. The first two of the three James Plays are sharp, exciting, and moving contemporary versions of a Shakespearean history play. 

It’s quite exciting to see, for once, a history play in which I knew absolutely none of the history. Admittedly, this came to result in some missed moments (is a lord furiously declaring to his king that his people will hate him forever prophetic, or ironic?), but it also made it easy to accept Rona Munro’s plays as the exciting dramas– I would even go so far as to say tragedies– that they are. 

Some of Shakespeare’s history plays, including Richard III and King John, were variously billed as histories and tragedies, which reflects the uncertain place this emergent dramatic form held in the early modern period. But it also draws attention to how often a history play– especially a history play centered around a single figure– can look very similar to a fictional tragedy. At least in the first two parts of the James Plays, Munro seems to be suggesting that you cannot tell a story about a king that is not a tragedy. As Shakespeare himself explored before her, it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that becoming a good king (or a good political ruler of any kind, for that matter) means selling part of your soul. 

There is something really striking about seeing such self-consciously Shakespearean plays telling Scottish history in the same year as an independence referendum. The ghost of Shakespeare is, in some ways, addressed head on in the first scene of James I, where the first king to enter and speak is not James himself, but King Henry V (Jamie Sives, who returns as James III), here portrayed as a blustering, swearing bully who nevertheless makes good use of his short reign. It’s also a useful warning shot: the titles and structures may suggest Shakespeare’s histories, but this is a place where his heroes are turned upside down, the saviors and villains of the history of the British Isles inverted.  

At the beginning of James I, King James I has spent 18 years as a captive in the courts of Henry V and Henry IV, and has passed the years studying history and writing love poetry (some of which is used as lyrics in the very lovely songs– performed by  ensemble member Fiona Wood and composed by Paul Leonard-Morgan– interspersed throughout the play). The tremendously good James McArdle is stammering, unassuming, and easily cowed by the forceful Henry, who humiliates him in front of a band of aristocratic Scottish prisoners, then orders him to return to Scotland for the first time in his adult life to secure English interests there, including forcing peace on the borders and raising the money for his own ransom. 

Aside from various modern stylistic choices, and of course a modern vocabulary of expletives, one of the ways Munro diverges most strikingly from a Shakespearean model– and indeed, from the pattern of historical films and plays today– is her dedication to creating a place for female characters. A sequence in which a battlefield and childbed are simultaneously present onstage exemplifies Munro’s insistence that the devalued roles of women are equally historically important as the battles and treaties guided by men. In James I, this is displayed primarily by her sensitive portrayal of Joan (Stephanie Hyam), James’s 17-year-old English consort. 

From King Henry’s opening attempts to instruct James on how to be a ruthless king like himself, to the gradual revelation of the real reasons behind James’s imprisonment, Munro expertly weaves James’s life story in and over on itself, each incident and episode echoing alongside what we’ve heard and learned and seen and been warned until it culminates at last in a truly moving final battle against an unexpected enemy I have no wish to spoil. It was in this sequence that my lack of knowledge of history was most exciting: I had no idea what was going to happen, and only Munro’s excellently crafted framework to guide my expectations. 

James II moves at a blistering pace, feeling rather shorter than James I, even though it clocked in ten minutes longer at our performance. Though no Englishmen appear, I couldn’t help but think about Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, as it too tells the parallel stories of a prince and a nobleman’s son, one learning to come into his own and the other apparently destined to be a disappointment. But unlike Prince Hal and Hotspur, King James II and William Douglas are best friends from childhood– which we learn through a fascinating flashback/dream sequence that mixes light, dance, and puppetry to tell the blood-soaked story of James II’s childhood and accession to the throne at age 6. 

James II (Andrew Rothney), marked by a vibrant wine-stain birthmark on his face and still controlled by a regency government at age 19, is lively but unstable, plagued by violent nightmares of his past and unable to control the acts his regents undertake in his name. Meanwhile, William (Mark Rowley) is a drinking, raiding, high-spirited disgrace to his physically and verbally abusive father, whom we have seen connive his way from the simpering, landless Balvenie in James I into the Earl of Douglas (Peter Forbes).

James II is less tightly constructed than its predecessor– the fascinating nightmare sequences drop away, and in the second act overall it feels as if important steps on James and William’s emotional journeys have been elided. But it all ties together in the end, if not quite as perfectly as James I, as resonantly and in a more viscerally shocking way. 

Munro and director Laurie Sansom draw neat lines between the first two parts, both in lines that echo each other across plays and in clever double-casting– Henry V and James III, as mentioned above, but also Stephanie Hyam as both James’s foreign wives, Andrew Rothney as a rebellious lordling in James I, and Gordon Kennedy as a pair of very different regents. I expect more will emerge in part three. 

Judging by other critics, who insist that the plays be taken as a trilogy, it seems inappropriate to say anything conclusively until I’ve seen James III. So all I will say is that I’m looking forward to it very much.