Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

American political drama inspires London theater | Trudy Rubin

If you are tired of political theatrics in DC, you can watch a more intriguing variant of political theater onstage in London.

Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale and Ben Miles in The Lehman Trilogy at London's National Theatre
Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale and Ben Miles in The Lehman Trilogy at London's National TheatreRead moreMark Douet

As an escape from the relentless political theater in Washington, I took a London vacation.

I love British theater, and, as so often happens in London, the most intriguing shows were political with an eye on events across the pond. The 2008 financial crash, the demise of democracy, immigration, Brexit: the prospects were endless if you could cadge a ticket.

Watching political drama on stage was far more satisfying than the dispiriting reality at home.

I include under "political theatre" the brilliant British version of Hamilton (where I sat in the 14th row orchestra center for $140 after grabbing a ticket online – a price that wouldn't pay for a ticket to the loo at one of the U.S. productions). The politics of Hamilton go beyond its multi-racial casting.  This story of an orphan who emigrated from the Caribbean to become one of America's founding fathers is a powerful slap at those who denigrate the key role immigrants have played in our history.

The most stunning political drama I saw was The Lehman Trilogy, at the National Theatre, which traces the arc of American capitalism through the 150-year saga of the family whose name became the symbol of the 2008 financial crash.

Using three brilliant actors, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles, who play multiple roles, and one astonishingly effective set, the play follows the family's progression from the 1840s. The three German Jewish Lehman brothers open a general store in Montgomery, Alabama, and pursue the American dream, building a banking and cotton brokering business through ferocious hard work.

The firm's progress parallels the development of America's economy, as the brothers move to New York City and invest in steel and railways. Run by family partners risking their own money, the firm later invests in the Hollywood film industry as well as key U.S. industries, such as Ford cars, oil wells, the rise of television, and computing.  This is all conveyed by moving boxes and furniture inside a revolving glass cube while the images of an expanding America are projected in black and white against the stage backdrop.

So the shock is palpable when this immigrant success story shifts direction: The family runs out of heirs in 1969 and finally sells out to American Express in 1984. It changes its focus to financial services – and speculation. In 2008, after the mortgage bond market collapsed, U.S. authorities decided to let the Lehman firm collapse as a warning to larger investment banks (who had more friends in high places).

As family member and partner Herbert Lehman said in 1957:  "Grabbing and greed can go on for just so long, but the breaking point is bound to come sometime."  Through astonishing theatrical magic, the play conveys in human terms the shift from America's solid industrial past to the speculation and inequalities of now.

A different set of comparisons are laid out in the marathon two-part play called Imperium, set in ancient Rome, at the John Gielgud Theatre. The Royal Shakespeare Company's absorbing but exhausting adaptation of Robert Harris' Cicero trilogy portrays the demise of a law-based Roman republic, done in by demagoguery, populism, and dictatorial takeover.

London's Evening Standard referred to the plays as the "West Wing in bloody togas."

The moment that gets the most laughs  — the entry of military commander Pompey, sporting an absurd Trumpian hairstyle — is actually the least relevant.  "For the love of the gods, don't laugh at the hair," one Roman politician admonishes his secretary.  But, contrary to (some) audience expectations, the pompous Pompey declines to make himself dictator, saying he will "serve the Senate, not dictate to it."  In other words, an orange pompadour needn't guarantee autocratic behavior.

Far more serious is the overall plot line: how a civilized republic gives way to demagoguery and populism. The story follows the rise and fall of the brilliant but flawed Cicero, an outsider and powerful orator who wins the popular vote for consul (the joint president of the Roman state). A firm believer in the rule of law, he struggles to maintain "the dignity, decency, and moral authority of Rome – the true Rome that existed in the time of our founding fathers."

As Cicero's secretary Tiro, the play's narrator, recalls: "Our State was a democracy – Romans were all great voters – and to prevent any one man seizing absolute power we had checks and balances."

But, during a tumultuous period of history, Rome's political certainties were undermined by warfare and economic chaos.  The pragmatic Cicero is pushed aside by demagogues, like the rich, corrupt patrician Clodius who tells the mob he is a persecuted outsider — a "victim of a conspiracy" and "a friend of the People." Behind Clodius lurks Julius Caesar, who ultimately seizes total power.

"How did we let it happen?" an exiled Cicero asks Tiro, a cri de coeur that is the play's underlying theme and the key question of our times.