NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from October 2005 and this production's original London season at the New End theatre.
It must be tempting for the solo player of a real person - as it is for a biographer - to become an apologist for his subject. Actor Philip York and writer Rod Beacham have walked a fine line to bring Robert Maxwell to life without either excusing him or reducing him to a hissable monster.
York resembles Maxwell so closely that watching his performance is unnerving, rather like entering a gorilla’s cage but with the luxury of a guaranteed exit. Maxwell was undoubtedly colourful and larger than life, but he was also a bully and a cheat, greedy and bombastic. Why should anyone want to spend time with him? Beacham and York make his story into a theatrical entertainment by filling out the known facts of his life and introducing a general question about the nature of truth. The passive title suggests that blame is shared; might we be partly responsible for supporting a system which encourages and lionises such a person? Can the truth be equivocal? Lies were probably told about Maxwell, as well as by him, and it seems likely that he had to deal with xenophobia and anti-semitism on the way to success.
The play begins with an overweight, besuited Maxwell gobbling Beluga caviar and answering multiple phones with expletives. Soon he removes the fat suit and introduces flash-backs. After a hungry childhood in Czechoslovakia, the teenage Maxwell - then called Leiby Hoch - escaped the Nazis (although many of his family were not so lucky), fought with the Allies and was decorated for bravery in 1945. Grabbing every opportunity, he went into publishing and politics (although his period as an MP is passed over here) before he achieved his ambition and bought a newspaper, the Mirror in 1984.
More than most, the play stands or falls by the acting. York inhabits the character of Maxwell with stunning success, but he cleverly holds back a little, too. There is a touch of irony in the performance, a flicker of humour, which enables the audience to share his journey. If York’s Maxwell bullies us, he also teases - not least with his multiple versions of the events leading up to that gigantic splash into the South Atlantic almost exactly 14 years ago.
- Heather Neill