The 5-star, Olivier Award nominated, masterpiece that is The Lehman Trilogy will be captivating Capetonian theatre-lovers as a stage-to-screen NT Live screening this August at V&A Cinema Nouveau. Adam Godley, one of the immensely talented actors in this three-hander —based on the play by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power and directed by Sam Mendes— shared some of his thoughts on this play about a family and a company that changed the world.
A play in three parts told in one night, The Lehman Trilogy tells of the 164-year legacy of three brothers who in the 1840s emigrated from Germany to America. Godley describes his The Lehman Trilogy experience as nothing less than amazing. Having been a very successful professional actor since age 9, Godley regards himself as very lucky in having a long, sustainable career. Even with that luck on his side, he sees working at this level of theatre as a dream: ‘I’m aware of how incredibly fortunate I am.’
For Godley the opportunity to play the youngest Lehman brother, Mayer, in this exquisitely presented production is a multi-layered experience.
In addition to the appeal of the much loved National Theatre —a theatre that ‘gives you every resource possible to create the best possible play’— co-producing the play with Neal Street Productions, Godley knew upon reading Power's adapted script that getting this intriguing tale to stage would be quite a feat, and one he definitely wanted to be a part of.
‘It’s such a fantastic script, and you look at it and you think, “How on earth are you going to present this?”. Then the other point of course is, who’s involved: Director Sam Mendes who I’ve worked with before many years ago and two exceptional actors, Simon Russell Beale and Ben Miles. When I put it all together I thought, “Well, this sounds like something extraordinary and I just can’t say no!”. One conversation with Sam and that was it, I was in.’
The script appealed to Godley not only professionally, but also personally:
‘It’s an astonishing story to tell and it covers so many things. It’s a very personal story about this family: three brothers, these three immigrants starting with absolutely nothing and creating something that really informs the way not only capitalism developed in America but also the way that the entire country, and our modern world, developed; the good, the bad, and the ugly. There was also a personal connection for me.; my father was an immigrant from Easter Europe, so the story is not dissimilar. For me there is certainly a connection to the original three brothers that has definitely touched me very deeply and still does as I continue to play it.’
Godley draws on this connection for his performance as Mayer, and more. The adaptation may be a three-hander, but while each of the actors play one of the original Lehman brothers they also play dozens of other characters along the way.
‘The play starts with Henry Lehman’s arrival in 1844. He started in Alabama selling cotton, then moved to New York. Then over the span of 164 years, you see how this original business develops and became what we ultimately knew as Lehman Brothers Bank.’
Even though the play covers decades, Godley shares that the creative team’s focus throughout was to 'tell the story effectively, using as little as possible’. Minimalism being key, one has to wonder how they incorporate playing the brothers, the decendents, and even the wives without an elaborate set, scene and costume changes:
‘Sam Mendes is a kind of magician and he creates theatrical magic. We had this incredible 9-week rehearsal period with him, where we figured out how to tell as much story as efficiently as possible. From the way the set revolves to our costumes, to the props we have onstage, everything is meticulously worked out so that we can quickly and efficiently transform from character to character across decades, through civil wars, through the Wall Street crash into the 21th century —it’s kind of like going into a space craft and traveling through space at lighting speed. It’s a way of conveying as much information as possible, as entertainingly and as efficiently as possible.
With this approach in mind, Mendez took a 5 hour play with a cast of 25, and willed it down to a 3 hour play with a cast of 3. Focussing the execution of the play on the essentials of the narrative also helps with the flow of the intricate story and keeps the audience’s attention, Godley explains.
‘There’s no sort of break; we just slip in and out of character. Of course there are specific choices made about which Lehman brother plays which other characters. You’ll see the brothers constantly playing other characters and then coming out of those characters, commenting on those characters. It’s an extraordinary kind of theatrical device —that in itself is part of the commentary and the magic of the play. And, of course, for us as actors to be able to be stretched in this way —I play men, women, children, old people, young people.’
One of Godley's characters sees him playing the same character from age 6 to age a 144. Getting to play the same character at various stages of life is part of The Lehman Trilogy allure for Godley: ‘You don’t get to do that every day of the week.’
With the play's complexity presented in a modest yet creative way, it’s no surprise that audiences and critics alike have responded with great praise. Godley regards audience reaction as an important focal point when stepping into the shoes of Mayer:
‘Theatre is a two-way street. We have this extraordinary response every night. It makes all the effort, the terror, the sweat, and the tears that we put into the show worthwhile when we get that positive response every night. It’s been an incredible experience and I hope people who are now able to see this production on screen will feel some of that coming through the screen.’
The NT Live presented recording of The Lehman Trilogy will be screened at Cinema Nouveau for four performances only from 24 to 29 August 2019. There are limited seats available for most of the performances, so don’t delay in booking your seats online through www.sterkinekor.com.