lies have been told – May 2007

an evening with robert maxwell


By: Rod Beacham

Directed by: Alan Doffor

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th May 2007

This is the third time we’ve seen Robert Maxwell portrayed in drama in six weeks. First there was Michael Pennington in The Bargain, then David Suchet on TV, and now a one-man (though given his size, it didn’t seem like that) show with Philip York playing the man himself.

All three portrayals had definite similarities; not too surprising with someone so recently deceased, and with such a strong public persona. This version gives us a post-death Maxwell, lecturing his audience on the tricks and tactics that made him a “successful” businessman, revealing his past, and eventually letting us in on the biggest mystery – how and why he died. Except that nothing quite happens as expected, and this play certainly gets across one of Maxwell’s early points: people will believe anything as long as it’s what they want to believe. There are some tremendously funny moments as he gives us examples, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury taking out a contract on John Gielgud because he doesn’t like the country’s leading actor being gay!

He takes us through his life in bite-sized chunks, appropriately enough, as he’s wolfing down Beluga caviar and champagne all the while. His early life as a poor Jew in Czechoslovakia, his arrest by the Germans, his escape from a one-armed guard when he was taken on a train journey, his various identities, ending up with the Robert Maxwell we know and ….well, know.

He often plays the other characters as well. At one point, he’s trying to persuade a colonel to set up a publishing company so that valuable scientific information from a German scientist can be published abroad at a time when Germans weren’t allowed to do this. He “plays” the colonel by holding up the cap and working it like a puppet. Very effective.

We see his temper tantrums and mood swings (firing his secretary then being amazed she should take him seriously), his manipulation of people (picking someone to bully in the audience, then getting us to stand up to him and reacting in a way that will hook people to him for life), and his sheer inability to recognise when anything is enough, a result of serious deprivation at an early age, which led him to grab and grab and grab, and never feel satiated.

All the rest is possible, but not definite; we’ll just never know the truth. But his desperate greed, the way he’s driven to succeed so fanatically that he’ll ride roughshod over people and the law to achieve greatness, that rings true. His varied versions of his final minutes are entertaining but ultimately give way to the only question that matters: why did he do it? Although we can never know for certain, this play gives a pretty good insight into the possibilities.

I loved the performance and the play. It’s probably better suited to a studio space, and so the relatively empty Yvonne Arnaud auditorium may have let it down a bit. I felt we could have responded more to some of the lines, although the chaps behind us were very enthusiastic when it came to standing up to him. I didn’t hear all of it, and I found my busy few days catching up with me a bit during the first half, but I still felt it was a good drama, well staged, and well worth the trip.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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