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EXCLUSIVE: In this Deadline exclusive, Es Devlin, whose magnificent set for director Sam Mendes’ The Lehman Trilogy is nominated for a Tony Award, presents a series of sketches and photographs that provide insight into the development of what would become one of the Broadway season’s most stunning experiences. From Mendes’ simple handwritten list of guiding principles to early sketches and subsequent photos, the gallery offers insight into a singular vision.
For each image, Devlin provides a caption that offers background — including an early idea, later discarded, that would have featured a tightrope walker high above the audience. “We are all walkers on the precarious tightrope of ever more complex human systems,” she writes.
In a neat summing-up of the visual power in Devlin’s set, the design magazine Wallpaper, writing shortly after the play opened on the West End in 2018, said,
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 skeletal glass-and-steel structure plays a starring role: it’s the dynamic force that drives the characters, action and plot…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.
Since that West End unveiling, The Lehman Trilogy, adapted by Ben Power from Stefano Massini’s play, has appeared Off Broadway at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, returned to London, returned to New York — Broadway this time — and in a limited Los Angeles engagement. Wherever Lehman goes, audiences are transfixed by the work’s creative force, not least in Devlin’s design triumph.
A three-time Olivier Award winner, Devlin, who lives in London, is a rarity among set designers — a bona fide recognizable celebrity, at last certainly in her native UK. But even American audiences who’ve never been to Broadway know her work: She’s designed gobsmacking shows — “large-scale installations and stage sculptures” is how her website describes them — for Beyoncé, Kanye West and U2. If you saw the 2022 Super Bowl Halftime Show with Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar or the 2021 Super Bowl Halftime Show with The Weeknd or the Olympic ceremonies in London 2012 and Rio 2016, you’ve seen the visionary genius of Es Devlin.
The play, which charts the 164-year history of the rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers investment firm and its inextricable place in the American story, is nominated for eight Tony Awards: three for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role/Play (Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester), Best Lighting Design/Play, Best Sound Design/Play, Best Direction/Play, Best Play and, of course, Best Scenic Design/Play.
To begin Devlin’s guided tour, start with the video clip below (after Devlin’s description of it), then click on the image at the top of this post to launch the photo gallery.
“VIDEO OF REVOLVING GLASS BOX”
The mechanical music box that Henry Lehman describes when first arriving in New York has been set in motion. The set became the fourth dancer, as by now Ben Power and Sam [Mendes] had refined the expansive text and numerous characters in a succinct composition for virtuosic trio. The composer Nick Powell sat in every rehearsal, improvising the piano score as the actors worked through blocking: like a film score being written. live. Candida [Caldicot], the pianist became the fifth member of the cast, accompanying each performance from downstage left as if it were a silent movie.
— Es Devlin