The skyline wraps around an office made of glass. It is metallic, this monochrome image. A force so great that it threatens Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

The Statue of Liberty stands tall, shrouded in a mist that rises from the ocean. She is very alone. That was how it began for the Lehman Brothers. They were small, once. Invisible. Working from a cramped shop in Alabama with a handle that sticks. A place named with an insignificant sign, scribbled across the walls in black marker pen. Their store rotates to the sound of a live piano, as if it were something magical. Which it is.

The origin of one of the world’s most prolific financial giants plays like a fairy tale. Opened by Henry Lehman (played by Simon Russel Beale), the brothers were first known as a dry goods store. Their trade began to evolve with the arrival of his two younger siblings Emmanuel (Ben Miles) and Mayer (Adam Godley), when they decided to capitalise on the high market value of cotton. The brothers engage in their new surroundings, narrated by the ticking of a clock. This conceives a keen sense of time, along with the constant repainting of the sign that hangs above their door. Their world is constantly changing.

Wrapped in sweeping black overcoats and cinched by matching waistcoats, the Lehman’s appear streamlined. It is with slight changes to these costumes that they adopt another role entirely. A flick of the collar and the twirling of a hem signals changes in gender – an event that is executed with fantastic comic timing. They move from one moment to the next through a smooth use of choreography. Their actions flow like a stream, as do transitions from narration to dialogue. The stage becomes a playground, filled with the ghosts of characters that are stolen by death. It is a huge feat for so few actors to crowd the Lyttelton Theatre. The space feels weighted somehow, as though an army of bodies are present.

They build a world with their words, which are then smashed in the mouth and crunched into numbers. Brothers become sons, and sons take total control. They flirt with the future against a storm of burnt orange, and are tortured by recurring dreams. Repetition creates urgency, which adds risk to the Lehman family tree. The narrative unfolds like smoke – it cannot be caught. As the Lehman Brothers verges on collapse, their stage turns against its backdrop. Powerless, the three stand inside the eye of a tornado, now strangers to each other, desperately searching for an anchor. It is almost sickening to watch.

Told in three parts, The Lehman Trilogy is a mighty piece of theatre. With cinematic elements, the production is visually striking and is clever in its immersive nature. Sam Mendes’ direction brings to life the most severe financial collapse in history, and in turn will leave a legacy of its own.

The Lehman Trilogy is playing at the National Theatre until September 22. For more information and tickets click here.

Photo: Mark Douet