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A CurtainUp London London Review

I found my own siren song and it was sung by a cruel man in dark glasses. — Maria Callas
Robert Lindsay as Aristotle Onassis and Lydia Leonard as Jacqui (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
The parvenu whiteness of Katrina Lindsay's 1960s setting for Onassis at the Novello Theatre reflects the ostentatious modernity of a shipping magnate's patriarchal world. Whether on a multi-million dollar yacht floating in the Mediterranean or a private island retreat, white surfaces framed with gold reflect the unfathomable wealth of the infamous Greek businessman, Aristotle Onassis. Water is fundamental to this wealth, and water features prominently throughout the play, whether in a back-projected sea that benignly laps a shore or heaves with stormy waves, or in the narrow front-stage strip of cool blue water that separates the audience from the drama. Water should purify. Instead it highlights the impurity of this sanitized insanitary world.

Adapted from the book Nemesis by Peter Evans, Martin Sherman's Onassis appears representative of those televisual docudramas that employ fine actors to force through their historicised schoolroom message. Costa (Gawn Grainger) trusted business companion of Onassis, narrates the tale, compressing decades of intrigue and sexual misconduct into a heady few minutes of plot-specific narrative. Costa addresses the audience directly, implicating us in the unfolding drama whilst distancing us from the characters we soon learn to despise rather than admire.

I say despise. There seems very little to like in any of them. Of course, Onassis has charisma and charm, but it is the charisma and charm of a man forced by the circumstance of wartime privation to fight his way to the top, regardless of who or what he destroys in the process. It is the charisma and charm of a man whose wealth allows him to buy anyone he chooses. The wealthier the man, the more expensive and precious the purchases, whether yachts or musicians or jewels or designer clothes or, as we soon learn, famous women.

For Onassis, the hunt is everything. Unless his women are desired elsewhere they are of no interest to him. Two of his most famous conquests appear in the play: Maria Callas and Jacqueline Kennedy. For Callas, her time has come. Her voice destroyed through neglect, pandering to the ego of her lover, she is ready to be discarded for a newer, more internationally famous model. A Kennedy! Now there's a prize for any Greek lothario, especially one whose hatred for the American clan runs deep.

Sherman's play explores the intricacies of these relationships, attempting to humanize the inhuman, to add colour to a pallid world of bravura and cold, cold isolation. This is a world of Greek gods, sun-like creatures who shine in magnificent glory before plunging earthward as mortality and age exact their inevitable toll. Onassis is one such god, or, as Costa reminds us, a demigod, as vulnerable as any mere mortal to the ravages of time. This is Greek tragedy writ small, the hubris of Onassis the inevitable failure of his petty attempt to rule a private world, populating it with beautiful women and funding it with outrageous, near-illegal commercial dealings.

That this play engages the audience at all is due primarily to the magnificent portrayal of Greek excess by Robert Lindsay. Lindsay is superb as Onassis, his accent only occasionally faltering, his mannerisms as Hellenic as if he was born under an olive tree. Gruffly violent whilst snakelike in his charm, Onassis is magnificently evoked as Lindsay gesticulates and gyrates to the bouzouki beat. This is a performance that any Greek expatriate can admire.

Lindsay is ably assisted by Anna Francolini, whose Callas is all diva and distraught ex-lover, exploding in rage and mourning the loss of her career and the man she loves to hate. "We are both Greek," she confides with the audience as she clasps Onassis in a loving embrace after they have shouted abuse and he has swiped her across the face. This abusive relationship has nowhere to go. Francolini guides us on a passionate journey of self-destruction, never losing sight of the frailty and grandeur of Callas.

Less convincing is Lydia Leonard as Jacqueline Kennedy. Possibly an impossible character to recreate, this Jacqui Kennedy-cum-Onassis lacks the cool, sophisticated aloofness of true American royalty. Leonard's accent never quite locates itself either side of the 'pond'. For Americans in the audience, this surely must detract from the theatrical experience. Unfortunately, the same can be said for many other members of the cast. This is a strangely Anglicized group of 'Greeks'. Accents come and go with little regard for accuracy. Lindsay and Francolini appear truly foreign among their own people.

An exception to this ensemble Englishness is found in the Dimitra of Sue Kelvin. Only a minor role of occasional housekeeper and maid, Kelvin's Dimitra will break into song or raise her maternal voice at the irritating Onassis. There are flashes of Mediterranean fire when this happens. Sadly, not enough to sustain the production's faltering flame.

Nancy Meckler's direction is crisp and, given the episodic material, coherent. Lindsay excels in his filmic impersonation of the 'cruel man in dark glasses'. For me, however, the play fails to engage, even though for my female partner (and indeed all the women I have spoken to who have seen the production) it is an unfathomable success and hugely entertaining. A Mars/Venus divide? Maybe so. I was left registering a decidedly unsympathetic, almost defamatory character-assassination of Onassis, purportedly admitting to funding the bodily assassination of Bobby Kennedy, just so the millionaire playboy could bed Jackie. For others, the Onassis charm obviously still works its mysterious macho magic

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Written by Martin Sherman
Directed by Nancy Meckler

Starring: Robert Lindsay, Anna Francolini, Gawn Grainger, Lydia Leonard
With: Tom Austen, Sue Kelvin, Ben Grove, Robert Hastie, John Hodgkinson, Graeme Taylor, Rachael Barrington, Suanne Braun, Nigel Carrington, Matthew Romain
Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Sound Designer: Andrea J. Cox
Music: Ilona Sekacz:
Video & Projection Designer: Lorna Heavey
Choreographer: Lizzi Gee
Lighting: Ben Ormerod
Running time: Two hours 15 min. including one interval
Box Office: 0870 950 0935
Booking to 5th February 2011
Reviewed by Kevin Quarmby based on 13th October 2010 performance at the Novello, Aldwych, WC2B 4LD 5LA (Tube: Covent Garden)
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