Es Devlin on her groundbreaking set design for The Lehman Trilogy
Writer: Bethan Ryder
Actors Ben Miles, Adam Godley and Simon Russell Beale in the third act of The Lehman Trilogy as the set and video speed towards the climax. Photography: Mark Douet
Few theatre sets deliver the modernist doctrine – form follows function – quite as effectively as Es Devlin’s revolving masterpiece for the National Theatre’s current hit The Lehman Trilogy, directed by Sam Mendes. This three-hour parable about the inexorable rise and devastating crash of American capitalism, told through three generations of a family of Bavarian Jewish immigrants, has received widespread critical acclaim and will transfer to New York’s Park Avenue Armory for a limited season in March (22 March - 20 April) 2019. Stefano Massini’s play debuted in Paris in 2013 and has been staged in Italy and Germany since then, but it’s Mendes’ 2018 London production that will prove the most memorable with Devlin’s glowing monochrome office imprinted in your mind long after you leave the Lyttelton.
Simon Russell Beale plays Henry Lehman, the first brother to arrive in New York from Bavaria. He settles in Alabama and opens a general store. Photography: Mark Douet
Ben Power’s adaptation of Stefano Massini’s play is concise and lyrical, brought vigorously to life by Nick Powell’s score and a triumvirate of leading British actors. Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley deliver this three-hander in the third person, segueing deftly between a variety of characters – from screaming infants to blushing brides – as they narrate this dynastic saga of boom and bust which spans a 164-year period.
This skeletal glass-and-steel structure plays a starring role: it’s the dynamic force that drives the characters, action and plot
Critics have singled out Devlin’s cinematic set for praise, and rightfully so. Essentially a rotating glass box masquerading as the archetypal modern office, with video designer Luke Halls’ digital panorama projected zoetrope-like behind – it’s so much more than mere scene-setting backdrop, especially given the fact that the narrative traverses centuries and continents. This skeletal glass-and-steel structure plays a starring role: it’s the dynamic force that drives the characters, action and plot from the expansive cotton fields of rural Alabama to the final day of reckoning in the fast-paced urban jungle of Wall Street in 2008.
Mendes' precepts are still displayed in Devlin’s studio because they apply to so many other design projects
Devlin has worked with what she calls ‘kinetic sculpture’ before, but the main inspiration for the rotating set came from Massini’s text and in particular Henry Lehman’s description of Manhattan when he first arrives off the transatlantic liner as a ‘magical musical box’. This concept was developed during the pre-production process in collaboration with Powell, Halls and Mendes. ‘Sam rehearsed with the revolving box from the start and wove it into the text, music and movement,’ Devlin says, ‘treating this as an evolving devised dance piece in which the revolving room becomes the fourth dancer.’
In an early meeting, Mendes wrote a list of precepts on a board in Devlin’s studio (pictured above). The other words of wisdom that determined the pared-back design concept were a hand-me-down from legendary American film director Sydney Pollack, who once told Mendes: ‘The audience will go to hell and back with you a bus – as long as it says “Hell” on the bus.’
Luke Halls’ video projections place the office in context, towards the end the Manhattan skyscrapers provide a claustrophobic setting, as the Lehman Bros fate closes in. Photography: Mark Douet
The clarity and power of this production derive from the newsprint palette (hyper-saturated colour is used only for the characters’ dream sequences) and masculine sparseness of the office set, which comprises three interconnecting spaces. Modelled largely on a midcentury modern office, it only contains the ‘physical vocabulary of a boardroom’: a large table, Eames 117 aluminium swivel chairs, an Arco lamp, marker pens, a vase of white tulips and stacks of the distinctive grey cardboard Bankers Boxes that Lehman Brothers’ employees departed with when the bank collapsed in 2008.
‘The audience will go to hell and back with you a bus – as long as it says “Hell” on the bus.’
This austere set liberates the actors and script through improvisation. As the play opens – in naturalistic colour – with a janitor in the Lehman Brothers boardroom on the eve of the bank’s collapse, the palette shifts to monochrome as the audience is then swept back to 1844 as the founding brother arrives and uses the smallest corner of the office, stacking boxes, to set up his shop in Alabama. Later the set becomes the Lehmans’ New York office of 1860. At various points the brothers scrawl their evolving company name on the glass walls, signposting the plot and growth of the company – like Pollack’s ‘Hell’ on the bus.
Actors use the black marker pens to create signage, charting the growth of the Lehman company. Photography: Mark Douet
It’s minimal, but incredibly versatile, as Devlin explains. ‘The Bankers Boxes become important building blocks, the boardroom table becomes a stage within a stage, the marker pens stand for paintbrushes, the ashtray for a ritual candle, the office flowers used and reused to relate generations of Lehman suitors.’ In fact this restrained vocabulary of objects serves to highlight the narrative. ‘It throws the emphasis back into the poetry of the text. Once the audience understands that an object stands for whatever the actors tells us it stands for, we accept the objects and tune more deeply into the language.’
Throughout the play, the actors – who document the marriages and deaths of the Lehmans – remain in 19th-century frock coats, a haunting detail that as Devlin points out, suggests ‘the room itself had a memory and were recounting all it had seen’. While the office never changes, Halls’ projected photographic vistas (part of the concept from the start) do, reflecting the location and key points in the plot, with the horizon as a constant. ‘The glass walls of the revolving box behave as a lens through which to view the ever-shifting context of the story,’ says Devlin. This panorama memorably flatlines at one point to signify the start of the Great Crash of 1929, channelling the play’s metaphor of the tightrope walker (depicted on the poster), who, like the stock market, dramatically falls on Black Thursday.
The boardroom table at times operates as a stage within a stage. Photography: Mark Douet
In the third act, these visuals blur, as the office spins at a dizzying pace. The bank is no longer run by family, based on longstanding relationships or respectful tradition, but by risk-taking traders operating in a deregulated market – with disastrous consequences. The finale is as abrupt as Lehman Brothers’ 2008 fate; the stage returns to naturalistic colour with the office full of staff, cardboard boxes in arms, awaiting the inevitable news. The phone rings, the play ends. §
‘Designing The Lehman Trilogy with Es Devlin Studio’ takes place on Monday 17 September, 4.30pm at the Duffield Studio. Apply for tickets here. The Lehman Trilogy is on until 20 October and sold out, but the National Theatre prioritises late releases to ensure people can secure tickets. Friday Rush – every Friday at 1pm a number of £20 tickets are released for all performances at the NT the following week. Day Tickets are available from the NT Box Office in person at 9.30am on the day of performance. Tickets for the North American premiere of the show, produced by the National Theatre and Neal Street Productions, in collaboration with Park Avenue Armory can be purchased now at armoryonpark.org.
The grisaille colour palette helps to ‘make concrete the shape of history’ and enhances the factual nature of the story. Photography: Mark Douet
Lighting designer Jon Clark sustained three hours of drama using only generic 2008 boardroom lighting: LED ceiling panels and linear strips and small ceiling fixtures. Photography: Mark Douet