Thursday, October 14, 2010

Onassis at the Novello Theatre

It must have required some considerable effort to take a life as eventful as that of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and render it so theatrically flat and unsatisfying.

Martin Sherman’s biographical drama first surfaced in Chichester a couple of years ago but despite considerable reworking the version that has now reached the West End is static and unforgivably dull.

That said, it can’t be accused of being short on plot. Drawing on Peter Evans’ book, Nemesis, the play covers his marriage to Jackie Kennedy, his off-and-on relationship with Maria Callas and even suggests that Onassis may have had some financial involvement in Robert Kennedy’s assassination. At one point (in one of the production’s funnier moments) director Nancy Meckler has to resort to using a flow chart projected on to the back of the set in order to illustrate the complex web of copulation in the Onassis set.

Sherman has appropriated some of the trappings of Greek tragedy – there’s a chorus of Onassis’ employees on hand to comment on the action and the characters make frequent calls upon the gods – but any sense of real tragedy is absent. The key events are reported rather than staged which adds to the sense of distance and only very occasionally are the characters allowed to collide.

Robert Lindsay, in the title role, captures some of the man’s brash charisma and doesn’t shy from depicting his unpleasantness and volatility, but there’s often a forced quality to his performance even if this in part seems to stem from the method of staging. Information is continually hurled at the audience in a way that minimises the emotional impact of even the most tragic of events. When Onassis crumbles on hearing of the death of his son, it’s a rare showy moment but one with little real power.

Lindsay is not allowed much opportunity to dig beneath the surface of his character and is forced to fall back on his not inconsiderable charm, clicking his heels to the regular bursts of bouzouki music and cursing with relish. His Onassis is never a figure one can empathise with and it’s easy to see why he occasionally overplays things, it feels like a compensatory measure for the play’s lack of dramatic drive. The other characters fare little better. Lydia Leonard, as Jackie, does her best with an underwritten role, but it’s difficult to figure out what her true feelings are towards Onassis at any stage in their relationship; Anna Francolini, drifting round the set in a kimono as the side-lined Maria Callas, her voice lost, has even less to do. Gawn Grainger, as Onassis’ right hand man Costa, is saddled with the bulk of the narration but he at least delivers this smoothly.

The sleek, clean design, by Katrina Lindsay, effectively conveys a world of Mediterranean wealth, of yachts and heat and money. The pool of water at the front of the stage is mirrored in the lighting, but this device, like so much in the production becomes repetitive and tired well before the end.

Reviewed for Theatermania

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