Tuesday, March 05, 2024

This play about the Lehman Brothers disaster is three hours long. It’s riveting

Michael Bailey writes on entrepreneurship and the arts. He is also responsible for the Financial Review's Rich Lists. He is based in Sydney. Connect with Michaelon Twitter. Email Michael at m.bailey@afr.com

Can you make a compelling play about economics? The Lehman Trilogy tries – but ultimately comes up short

The Lehman Trilogy,  

This play about the Lehman Brothers disaster is three hours long. It’s riveting

Michael BaileyRich List co-editor
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Review: The Lehman Trilogy, Sydney’s Theatre Royal, March 2

A three-hour play about Lehman Brothers? On paper, it sounds a dull proposition – especially since we already know of the bank’s ignominious end back in 2008.

Yet The Lehman Trilogy, adapted from an Italian script by Englishman Ben Power, and directed for the UK’s National Theatre by another Brit in Sam Mendes of American Beauty fame, is exhilarating. Its 200 minutes, which include two quarter-hour intervals, flew by.

Adrian Schiller as Henry Lehman in The Lehman Trilogy.  Louise Kennerley

This play is a tribute to the value of that outsider’s perspective. These foreigners have retold the American epic of the Lehman family with a gimlet eye, portraying their hard work and vision spurred on by their Jewish faith on the one hand, yet not ignoring the greed and the hubris that eventually brought the family’s business down.

Indeed, the day that Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and triggered the global financial crisis is unlikely to ever be far from the audiences’ mind. The set comprises the glass-and-stainless-steel boardroom and offices of the bank’s Manhattan headquarters, frozen in time on that fateful September 15th.

Then, like a ghost, a man in a 19th-century black frock-coat emerges from among the cubicles and boxes of photocopier paper.

This is Heyum Lehman, the eldest son of a Bavarian cattle merchant, clutching a single suitcase as he disembarks at New York Harbour on September 11, 1844. He is about to be renamed ‘Henry’ by a clueless border official, and he doesn’t object – the family’s transformation from dutiful, tradition-bound European to bounding, aggressive American has begun.

Henry (Adrian Schiller) talks us through his early years of toil selling fabric and suits from a humble store in Montgomery, Alabama. Then he is joined by brothers Emanuel (Howard Overshown) and Mayer (Aaron Krohn) and the ambitions soon expand.

Actors Adrian Schiller, Howard W. Overshown and Aaron Krohn during The Lehman Trilogy rehearsals at The Theatre Royal, Sydney.  Louise Kennerley

They begin selling seeds and tools to farmers, and accepting payment in raw cotton – which Henry, who by his own admission is “always right”, soon learns can be sold for healthy profits to fabric mills in the north.

Neither growing the cotton nor improving it, the brothers are soon making millions from it anyway. They proudly proclaim they have become “middle men” – and you feel like you’ve just witnessed the birth of investment banking.

A tightrope walker the Lehmans pass each morning on Wall Street becomes a perfect metaphor for the risky road they are taking – the tension as they watch him is palpable.

Wordy works like The Lehman Trilogy live or die on the strength of their actors, and Schiller, Overshown and Krohn – selected for their Shakespearean pedigrees – are always compelling. They use the modest props at their disposal - a boardroom table, a few boxes, a much-recycled bunch of flowers - in ever more inventive ways.

The stagecraft is magnificent, with moody video projections and soundscapes helping to immerse us in events like The Civil War, and in the fitful dreams of the brothers and their progeny, who seem to sense deep-down that all of this untrammelled accumulation cannot end well.

Cat Beveridge, providing the soundtrack live on piano at front of stage, is a welcome feminising presence – although the three principals do a credible, occasionally hilarious job of portraying the Lehman wives, as they morph through history from arranged to estranged.

The struggles of succession are also shown in a way to which many families will relate – although in the Lehmans’ case, they are illustrated by a modest proposal from Emanuel and Mayer to fund homes for a new generation of factory workers being overruled by Emanuel’s son, Philip – he will finance the Panama Canal instead.

The phrase “collateralised debt obligation”, the financial instrument that finally brought Lehman Brothers down, is not uttered in this work, and it doesn’t need to be.

By the three-hour mark, the tightrope the firm has walked for 164 years has been stretched so tight, we understand how the vibrations of a single phone call from The Federal Reserve could send it crashing into history’s dustbin.

The Lehman Trilogy is at Sydney’s Theatre Royal until March 24.