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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Onassis
Novello Theatre   Autumn 2010

Martin Sherman's play about the Greek multimillionaire is built on one explicit and one implicit metaphor - Aristotle Onassis as Homeric or Sophoclean hero, larger than life in accomplishments and appetites but with the risk of attracting the always dangerous attention of the gods, and Onassis as the embodiment of Greek vitality and machismo, Zorba in a 3000 suit.

And that is certainly the way Robert Lindsay plays him, with expansive and seemingly limitless energy that is both attractive and sexy.

The problem is that Sherman does not follow up on his premises, presenting a reductive image rather than a celebratory one, so that you could easily come away from the play with the impression that Onassis was just some faceless rich guy whose single defining accomplishment was bedding Jacqueline Kennedy.

Based on Peter Evans' Nemesis, a biography commissioned by Onassis's vindictive daughter, the play presents every scurrilous rumour about its characters as fact - that Onassis and Jackie began their affair while John Kennedy was still alive and President, that she also slept with her brother-in-law Robert for several years, that Onassis paid a Palestinian terrorist over a million dollars for the murder of Robert Kennedy, and that he shrank into paranoia in his last years, convinced that every large and small reversal was the work of business rivals, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Palestinians and Israelis working together, the Mafia, the CIA, and/or his ex-wife.

 (Now, those things may very well all be true, but dramatically we need more than the play's assumption that they are true.)

Meanwhile, the other woman in his life (his wife being irrelevant), Maria Callas, is reduced to three or four peripheral appearances, one as a ghost, as the play focuses on the wooing, winning and getting bored with Jackie, and on Onassis's relations with his uncharacteristically nice and moral son.

As Onassis, Robert Lindsay gives the best performance of Zorba since Anthony Quinn, investing the man and the play with a personality and sexy energy that the script doesn't provide.

Lydia Leonard's Jacqueline, on the other hand, is an almost complete blank, a clothes horse for whom courtship, marriage and divorce are primarily business deals and who lacks even the charm and personality you would expect from an expensive call girl.

And Anna Francolini as Callas is reduced (by cuts in the text, perhaps?) to skulking around the fringes, ineffectually cursing or foreboding like Margaret in Richard III. Gawn Granger carries a lot of the weight of exposition and narration as an Onassis aide, and John Hodgkinson has a few comic moments as a tongue-tied accountant.

The only reasons to see this are the juicy bits of gossip, which you can get from the book, and Robert Lindsay's bravura performance, which is not quite enough.


Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Onassis - Novello 2010