By Martin Sherman
Directed by Nancy Meckler
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Monday 29th September 2008
I enjoyed this play very much. More so than the several people who left during the first half, or didn’t return after the interval. There was some swearing, and some sexual language which might not be considered appropriate before the watershed, but this is theatre, and we’re all supposed to be grown-ups, so I had no problem with it. In fact, given Aristotle Onassis’s reputation for coarseness, we were probably getting the polite version.
It did take me a short time to get into this play at first. The mildly pornographic story of Aristo’s encounter with a Turkish lieutenant certainly livened things up, and I warmed to the characters from then on. After the opening scene, with Onassis and Jackie on board his yacht, the curtain at the back of the stage slid aside, and a platform came forward with seven people on it, two of them musicians. I realised fairly quickly that this was the chorus, and that we were being given a Greek dramatic structure as well as subject matter. The music was Greek, too, and very good.
The first to speak was Costa, played by Julius D’Silva, who had stepped up to this role replacing another indisposed actor. His prior role, as Theo, was played by Hywel Morgan, another super sub, as he’d stepped in to play the captain and many other parts in Our Man In Havana (August 2007). Anyway, Costa goes into a long spiel about Aristo’s past, the women he’s slept with, the other men they’ve slept with, the marriages, the divorces, the plotting, the business deals, the loves, the hates, etc., etc. It was pretty complicated, but I just about kept tabs on it all, and Costa’s delivery brought out a lot of the humour. Then the technical wizardry started up.
To explain. At the start of the play, the set looked very simple. There was white planking everywhere, and a long rectangular pool, with actual water, along the front of the stage (well guarded during the interval). A flat white wall at the back had a long rectangular window, with a white curtain drawn across it. The sound of Greek music could be heard coming from behind this curtain. There were a couple of chairs, and that’s about it, apart from a door far left, almost completely hidden in the gloom over that way. Once the curtain was drawn back, and the platform came forward, the rest of the white wall was used as a projection screen, allowing for extra settings without much effort. In particular, it was used to create the idyllic island that Aristo used as a retreat, and also to show diagrams of the complicated connections between the many people involved in Aristo’s story, like now, when Costa has been explaining it all to us. The names appeared on the wall, with Onassis in the centre, and with lots and lots of lines drawn everywhere between the people. The chorus all turned and pointed to it, which was very funny. Costa then had even more names to give us, and got a deserved round of applause when he’d finished his stint, as it was mind-boggling how he remembered it all.
Yanni then took over. Played by John Hodgkinson (Absurdia, August 2007), he was instructed to be brief by Costa, which was a bit cheeky considering how long he’d wittered on for. But it soon became clear that brevity was not in Yanni’s repertoire. He kept prefacing the actual information by phrases like “if you’ll permit me to say this”, and “if I can put it this way”, which slowed things up tremendously, but also gave us some good laughs. Yanni was the financial chap, while Costa was the right hand man. Theo didn’t come into it until later, when Aristo asked him how his son, Aristo’s that is, was doing running a plane company. Aristo is furious when Theo describes his son as “nice”, and claims he’s liked by everyone. Not what Onassis expects from his son, obviously.
We also get to meet Maria Callas. She storms on, refusing to be left out of the litany of lovers, and we even get to hear a few snippets of her marvellous singing earlier in her career. It’s a lovely performance by Diana Quick, culminating in the second half in a marvellous cursing sequence followed by an “I wish them all the luck” for Onassis and Jackie’s marriage, which got one of the best laughs of the evening.
Apart from that, we get a brisk review of the tensions between Aristo and the Kennedy clan, his wooing of Jacqueline Kennedy before the death of her husband, and their subsequent marriage, and we’re taken into the speculative area of his involvement in the death of Bobby Kennedy. With this foray into assassination, the tide turns, and Aristo himself becomes one of the hunted. His son is killed in a helicopter crash, and now the man is convinced “they” are out to get him. It’s a study of a particular type of larger-than-life hero, a man who takes on the world and wins, doing what he feels he needs to do for business success. I was very aware during the scenes with his son, Alexander, that it would be impossible for his son to be anything like his father, because Aristo had such hard challenges as young man, while Alexander had been relatively pampered. Hard-won wealth creates its own generation gap.
Robert Lindsay as Aristotle Socrates Onassis was in fine form, showing us his character’s ruthlessness and cunning, along with his charm and passion for life (or should that be sex?). There was plenty of opportunity to sing and dance, including one Greek dance that all the men joined in, hopping over the pool one after another. There were a number of occasions when I felt I was watching the man himself, but occasionally the accent slipped a bit, and brought me back to reality. The changes of mood were very well done, as Aristo was a roller coaster of emotions. Living with him would have tested a saint, and he didn’t seem keen to surround himself with those.
Elizabeth McGovern played Jacqueline, and gave her a kind of dreamy quality. She never seemed to be fully there, even when sober, and certainly not when drunk. I could see the marriage would fail, as she was simply a trophy for Onassis, a way of getting one up on the Kennedy clan, as well as all other men on the planet, and there wouldn’t be anything in it for her other than the money, once Onassis no longer had to woo her into marriage. She came across as someone who wasn’t intellectually gifted, but had spent so much time around those in power that she understood how things worked, and wasn’t particularly bothered by morals. I quite liked this representation of her.
Alexander, Aristo’s son (Joe Marsh), was going through those difficult teenage years, made all the more difficult by his father’s wealth and power. How do you rebel against the man who has everything? And who can seduce you with a helicopter, or expensive car, without worrying where the next mortgage payment’s coming from? Life’s tough just below the top. The chorus, especially his nanny, made it clear he was for the chop, but he did show us another side to Aristo’s character when he was around.
His nanny (June Watson) and another maid in the Onassis household (Denise Black) completed the chorus. Denise did a lot of the singing, and has a very fine voice. I liked the way the chorus talked among themselves, giving us different points of view about the various events, as well as giving us the necessary information about the people. Their prayers to the gods were clear reminders of the cultural background of the main character, and I felt that that culture had a very strong presence in both his life and this play. No plates were broken, but that’s about all that was missing. It was a really good evening, with only a few spells that flagged a bit, and I was very glad to have seen it.
Post-show discussion 1st October 2008
We couldn’t get to this night’s performance, so we came over just for the post-show discussion anyway. Almost all the cast came out, eventually, and we had the writer and director there too, so it was an interesting chat. We learned that the understudies we saw on Monday had only had about a week to learn all those lines, so the achievement was all the more remarkable. The subject of audience involvement came up as usual, and tonight’s audience had apparently been quieter than most, which some reckoned was because there was so much information to take in. Robert Lindsay was asked about what had got him into Onassis’s character, and replied “sex drive”, which made us laugh, though it was evidently true. I forget most of the other points now, sadly, but I remember we laughed a lot, and the cast seemed to be a good unit, though somewhat tired after their exertions.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me