The Lehman Trilogy tells a story of our times – the rise and fall of a giant of global finance. Lehman Brothers was the investment bank that almost brought down the entire banking sector. That much most people already know, but Steffano Massini’s sweeping epic follows its story across two centuries and three generations of a single family. It follows a classical arc: a soaring success that flies too close to the sun.
On the night of 14 September 2007, Lehman Brothers’ top brass waited for a phone call from the Federal Reserve bearing news about whether the bank would be bailed out. Massini’s beguiling history play uses that moment, when Lehman’s fate hung in the balance, to summon the ghost’s of its brilliant past – the three brothers, off the boat from Germany, who founded a small family firm that grew into a vast global brand.
Lehman’s story starts in 1844, when Haim ‘Henry’ Lehman arrives in New York and heads south to start a small textile shop. Joined by his brothers, ambitious Emmanuel and cautious Mayer, the trio establish the beginnings of a banking empire, always turning calamity to their own advantage. A business that is handed down the generations builds and builds, changing its tactics and taking more and more risks.
We know the shape of this story – and we certainly know how it ends – but it is the historical detail that gives The Lehman Trilogy its heft. The play charts the changes of financial philosophy with a sharp sense of scrutiny, watching out for the moment when sense and stability tip into growth at all costs.
Adapted by British playwright Ben Power and directed by Sam Mendes, Massini’s sprawling script has been streamlined for just three fantastic performers. Between them, Ben Miles, Adam Godley and Simon Russell Beale not only play Lehman’s lapping chief execs, but all the wives and advisors, politicians and children entangled in the bank’s expansionist history. On Es Devlin’s luxuriant design – a glass office block box that spins faster and faster as the financial sector speeds up – it is the richest piece of poor theatre you’ll ever see.