Onassis, Novello Theatre, London

Jackie Kennedy on being shown a landmark from Aristotle Onassis’s yacht: “Wasn’t Homer born there?” Onassis: “He was. As well.” It is a droll exchange that instantly establishes the scale of the shipping tycoon’s ego. It also sets up the premise of Martin Sherman’s play, which sees in that ego’s rise and fall a tale of hubris that compares interestingly with the stories from Greek antiquity.

Unfortunately, this pithy twinning of theme and wit doesn’t continue throughout the evening. There are some sharp insights and witty exchanges but not enough to offset a stolid account of events that strains to accommodate echoes of Greek tragedy and references to fate and the gods. It is kept alive by a stellar turn from Robert Lindsay as Onassis, who brings enough energy and crackle to the part to light up Monaco single-handed.

Sherman focuses on the last decade or so of the millionaire’s life, his messy involvement with two of the most famous women in the world – Maria Callas and Jackie Kennedy – his murky business relations with the Middle East, his loathing of Bobby Kennedy and the devastating death of his son Alexandros. Was this an accident or a case of sabotage? Was it fate or did Onassis bring tragedy on himself? Interesting territory, and Sherman’s idea of linking it with Greek tragedy is a good one but it is awkwardly managed, with clunky references to Poseidon and Aphrodite. Nancy Meckler, directing, does a good job of integrating the chorus of minders and locals but even so the mix is lumpy and it is a strain to conceive of Onassis as a tragic hero.

Matters are not helped by the fact that Jackie K is underwritten, leaving Lydia Leonard struggling to enliven her, and Anna Francolini as Maria Callas is saddled with stalking around in a kimono and ranting histrionically. There are some lovely moments: Gawn Grainger, as Onassis’s right-hand man, offers an absurdly intricate explanation of just who was bedding whom in the jet-setting world. Katrina Lindsay’s simple seascape set, which changes the mood of the waves as the play darkens, is ingenious.

And Lindsay holds the stage with a mercurial performance, switching moods instantly and alarmingly. He manages to make his man a monster, and yet still charismatic, and he invites pity with his moving portrayal of grief. But even he can’t float this boat. ()


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