Aristotle Socrates Onassis: a name that seems to necessitate great things and a life that never failed to deliver them. One of the richest men in the world he stood against countries and seduced the most desirable women. Nothing seemed to be beyond the Greek shipping magnate, his life unfolding like the Homeric stories he obsessed over. Living like the great god of the sea, Poseidon, his story of money, women and amorality finally comes to the West End in what is a brilliant example of storytelling at the Novello Theatre.
The difficulties in telling a story that is as historical as this lie in choosing the right parts of the story to tell and doing so in the right way. This is by no means an easy choice to make, especially with a life so rich (in every sense) as that of Aristotle Onassis. The biographical work done by Peter Evans in Nemesis and Ari has paved the way for a precise and masterful script from Martin Sherman, lifting out his remarkable marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy and his tempestuous relationship with the rest of the Kennedy clan as the focus of a story so remarkable it’s a wonder it’s not fantasy.
The erudite cruise through the life of Onassis takes us into a life that thrashes between light frivolity and dark seriousness. The statement of Onassis’ role in the assassination of Bobby Kennedy is one that carries major consequences, and has provoked criticism from the Onassis Foundation, yet the picture we are given of Onassis is of someone to whom danger and conflict is no obstacle. His early life in Smyrna and his motto of ‘there is no right or wrong: there is only what is possible’ certainly made him a talented and unscrupulous businessman. The play captures this brilliantly, giving him a depth of character with his passion for his Greek heritage; the love of Greek mythology and the music of his people, and offsetting this with the coldness that he takes to his business.
Given fantastical material to work with and an equally dynamic script it would have taken a poor actor indeed to screw it up. Robert Lindsay is not a poor actor and he is nothing short of sublime in the role. His character permeates the whole show, from the energetic dancing to his recording of the announcement at the beginning, asking people to turn off their mobile phones and save themselves ‘public humiliation’. He takes to the role like Poseidon to the sea, the character of Onassis being utterly indistinguishable from Lindsay the actor. The accent, the mannerisms, the small ticks and his grasp of the fundamental flashes in Onassis’ character makes it feel as if Aristotle Onassis himself is marching powerfully around the stage like the old school God of War.
The supporting cast are also all great in their roles, notably Lydia Leonard as Jacqueline Kennedy paints a picture of a woman attracted to excitement and paradox; ‘Captain Hook on a yacht with both hands’. She is both meek and powerful at the same time, giving an insight into the dangerous triangle that existed between her, Onassis and Bobby Kennedy.
Making sense of the absurdly inter-connected mess of lovers that these people were involved in, and of which Onassis was at the centre, is a difficult task and is one that is bravely and adeptly undertaken by Gawn Grainger, whose character ‘Costa’ takes on both roles as Onassis’ chief confidant and narrator for the audience. His performance is worthy of merit as he gives Lindsay’s masterful Onassis a solid and more human counterpart as well as filling in all the historical facts that are required but difficult to assimilate.
The other cast members also take on this difficult duality of roles with surprising ease, making the distinction between history and narration so fine that it ceases to exist at all. This is the result of good direction. Their characters are well characterised and develop the Greek heritage and passions in such a way that gives Onassis a context that can be understood in a communal sense, as if he is the god of the group that surrounds him.
The play darts between opposites all the time; from cool lovemaking to fiery anger, from cold business to heated passion and the cast keep up with the rapid fluctuations perfectly, most notably Lindsay, who is the one changing the scene most of the time. As he says in the first scene, he doesn’t approve of subject changes unless he’s making them and throughout the play it is him who is utterly dominant to the point of near-omnipotence. He said in real life that the lives of the super-rich were akin to those of the ‘heroes’ of Ancient Greece and he was certainly among this category, likely worshipping Hermes, God of both theft and trade and to Onassis the two often went together.
On the stage, this dynamism and passion is brought to vigorous life by Robert Lindsay and his supporting cast, who balance the contradictions and controversies surrounding this powerful figure in a performance that is so full of skill it would make the gods themselves both envy and adore what they saw.
A truly brilliant show.
At the Novello Theatre, written by Martin Sherman, directed by Nancy Meckler, cast includes Robert Lindsay, Lydia Leonard, Gawn Grainger and Anna Francolini, runs from 30th September 2010 - 8th January 2011.
John Ord (11/11/2010)