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When the American Dream turned into a nightmare

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Issue 2613
Ben Miles in The Lehman Trilogy
Ben Miles in The Lehman Trilogy (Pic: Picture: Mark Douet)

The Lehman Trilogy is a three-hour, three-person play that tells the story of the rise and fall of US banking giant Lehman Brothers.

Using multigenerational storytelling, it gives an epic sweep of the family saga portrayed as the quintessential American dream.

Hayum Lehmann is the eldest of three Jewish immigrant brothers from Bavaria in southern Germany. He has returned to the scene to recount the opening instalment of the Lehman family saga.

In 1844, after weeks at sea, this son of a cattle merchant lands in New York.

Hayum becomes “Henry” to the untrained American ear and opens a store in Alabama in the US South.

Soon after brothers Emanuel (Ben Miles) then Mayer (Adam Godley) arrive.

Their business grows as they diversify from bolts of fabric to raw cotton throughout the American Civil War.


Then Emmanuel has a rethink about the South’s prospects and Lehman’s relocates to New York.

The Lehman Trilogy is staged on a revolving glass box which serves as a shifting location scene, and there is clever manipulation of light and video.

The live piano is a delightful subtle accompaniment.

There’s no unfrocking of the inner workings of capitalism on show here. Nor does it set out to.

There’s no coruscating critique like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

And there’s nothing to illuminate corporate finance’s debt-swallowing trickery like Lucy Prebble’s Enron.

The play then takes us through the Wall Street Crash of 1929 up to the 2000s.

Duping consumers to borrow and buy was the new frontier.

In this era of marketing people would purchase not out of need but instinct, just like breathing.

“It will be a luxury for all. The poor don’t exist and Lehman Brothers will become immortal,” drools a thrusting new intake eager for some action.

Then came the crash.

Harold Wilson

The Lehman Trilogy Directed by Sam Mendes At The National Theatre until 20 October.


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