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Review Round-up: Was Onassis on the Money?

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Martin Sherman's reworked Onassis, starring Robert Lindsay in the title role as the late Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, opened to critics last night at the Novello Theatre (12 October 2010, previews from 30 September).

The play focuses on the last years in the infamous millionaire's life, including his complex connections and interwoven relationships with Jackie Kennedy, widow of president John F Kennedy, singer Maria Callas and his son Alexandros.

Originally premiered as Aristo at Chichester Festival in September 2008, the retitled Onassis has been rewritten by Sherman (whose other plays include Bent). Ahead of the West End, the new version, directed again by Nancy Meckler, premiered last month at Derby Theatre, which only reopened in 2009 after the administration and closure of Derby Playhouse.

Besides Lindsay, the cast also features Lydia Leonard (Jackie Kennedy), Anna Francolini (Maria Callas), Gawn Grainger and Tom Austen.

Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com ★★★★ - "What is great acting? Hard to define, but you know it when you see it. And Robert Lindsay as Aristotle Socrates Onassis in a new play by Martin Sherman first seen in the Chichester Minerva Theatre, is the full mixed meat kebab: a performance of foul-mouthed arrogance, physical transformation, dominant authority and full-on vulgarian extravagance … Sherman and director Nancy Meckler concoct a modern Greek tragedy out of the legendary interaction between the self-made shipping magnate and the Washington political aristocracy … Lindsay paints a full portrait of aggressive sensuality and shocking self-centredness. Above all, he irradiates that physical stillness, charisma and banked down violence of all the big moguls and makes a good case for the old rogue being a top monster of the last century … It’s not a perfect play, but it’s a colourful cautionary tale for our celebrity times, with a knockout star turn at the centre."

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian - "First seen at Chichester two years ago under the title of Aristo, Martin Sherman's play poses a huge question: why on earth did people of taste and judgment bother to revive a piece as laughably awful as this? … Starting in 1963, and covering the last 12 years of the Greek shipping magnate's life, it shows him to be little more than a boorish megalomaniac … Unfortunately, Sherman seems so mesmerised by this monster, he has scarcely bothered to write a play. Of conflict there is virtually none, since Onassis is surrounded by toadies, yea-sayers and financial dependents; and, even if his son and second wife briefly stand up to him, they are soon squashed by his daunting ego … What gives the play a patina of absurdity … is the presence of a pseudo Greek chorus who sit in a taverna and comment on the passing action … The best one can say of Nancy Meckler's production is that Katrina Lindsay's sets have a certain marine charm, and that the actors do what they can."

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - "Lights up on Aegean-ish skies and old women in black and a lead actor in thick-framed spectacles who keeps thumping his chest to show us how tough he is... what a stereotype they have made of one of the 20th century's most mercurial tycoons. Martin Sherman's play, directed by Nancy Meckler, faces the challenge of explaining the incestuous web of relationships which connected Onassis to America's Kennedys and many a tycoon-bedding courtesan in the eastern Mediterranean in the post-war era ... Onassis chats up Jackie Kennedy (Lydia Leonard) with an explicit description of gay sex. There is repeated use of the F word. Maria Callas (Anna Francolini) looks in from time to time ... The Greek characters keep addressing ancient Greek gods. I think we are meant to believe that the House of Onassis somehow displeased the deities of Olympus ... In front of me a boy of about 12 fidgeted and yawned after finishing his bottle of Coke. I think he wished the evening would end sooner. He was not alone."

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph ★★ - "Onassis is a classic example of the higher tosh, something in which the playwright Martin Sherman has frequently traded over the years. Essentially, it is an excuse to reheat a lot of high-class scandal and rehearse a few conspiracy theories about Aristotle Onassis ... It gives Robert Lindsay, a chance to dominate the stage in one of those showy, high-definition performances in which he specialises ... Sherman presents his story as a pretentious modern-day Greek tragedy ... One leaves the theatre experiencing the kind of guilt (over wasted time) and throbbing head (from information overload) that would follow a night on the retsina in a Greek taverna ... The tone is strangely uneven too, ranging from wry comedy to the ridiculously overblown ... The producers must be hoping that the allure of Lindsay will paper over the cracks. And he does, as always, give a highly watchable performance ... It’s time Lindsay took his great talent seriously, and did some work that is worthy of it."

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard ★★ - "Lindsay is at times hypnotic as this Machiavellian puppet-master ... Sherman’s drama is set up as a modern Greek tragedy, complete with a chorus of bystanders and repeated invocations of the gods ... The production is far too static. Katrina Lindsay’s spare design proves effective, but Nancy Meckler’s direction rarely creates enough dynamism, and one’s left with the impression that the play might work better on the radio ... Even Anna Francolini’s extravagantly diva-ish Callas... is precisely that: foils to the star turn ... While Lindsay evokes the hubris and vulgar charisma of Onassis, he can’t quite redeem the writing’s lumpily narrative approach to history. Too often this portrait of his morally profligate pursuit of a life “without limits” feels talky and underpowered."

  • Libby Purves in the The Times ★★★ "What can you say about an epic performance in an undeserving play? That is what Anna Francolini, justifiably over the top as Maria Callas, opts for in the final moments of this frustrating night ... Robert Lindsay does a lot to redeem the messy over-narrated structure with rages, jokes, mood-swings, exuberant skips and paranoia. Any time the script gives him half a chance he brings the theatre alive ... His performance is bigger and better than the play itself. Even Jackie O — played without conviction by Lydia Leonard — gets only one good riposte. When he says it is like “f****ing an ironing-board” she replies: “What would YOU know about an ironing board?”. Could have done with more of that, and less of the history lecture."
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