Robert Lindsay and Lydia Leonard in Onassis
(© Tristram Kenton)
Robert Lindsay and Lydia Leonard in Onassis
(© Tristram Kenton)
It takes something to make a life as eventful as that of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and turn it into something so theatrically flat, static, and unsatisfying as Martin Sherman's biographical drama, Onassis, now at West End's Novello Theatre.

Whatever its flaws, the play (based on Peter Evans' book, Nemesis) can't be accused of being short on plot - as it covers Onassis' (played by Tony Award winner Robert Lindsay) marriage to Jackie Kennedy (Lydia Leonard), his off-and-on relationship with Maria Callas (Anna Francolini), and even suggests that Onassis may have had some financial involvement in Robert Kennedy's assassination.

Indeed, at one point (in one of the production's funnier moments) director Nancy Meckler has to resort to using a flow chart projected on to the back of the set in order to illustrate the complex web of copulation in the Onassis set.

Sherman has appropriated some of the trappings of Greek tragedy -- there's a chorus of Onassis' employees on hand to comment on the action and the characters make frequent calls upon the gods -- but any sense of real tragedy is absent. The key events are reported rather than staged, which adds to the sense of distance and only very occasionally are the characters allowed to collide.

Lindsay -- who often falls back on his not inconsiderable charm -- captures some of the man's brash charisma and doesn't shy from depicting his unpleasantness and volatility, but there's often a forced quality to his performance. Information is continually hurled at the audience in a way that minimizes the emotional impact of even the most tragic of events. When Onassis crumbles on hearing of the death of his son, it's a rare showy moment but one with little real power.

The other players fare little better. Leonard does her best with an underwritten role, but it's difficult to figure out what Jackie Kennedy's true feelings are towards Onassis at any stage in their relationship. Francolini, drifting round the set in a kimono as the sidelined Callas, has even less to do. Gawn Grainger, as Onassis' right hand man Costa, is saddled with the bulk of the narration, but he at least delivers this smoothly.

The sleek, clean design, by Katrina Lindsay, effectively conveys a world of Mediterranean wealth, of yachts and heat and money. The pool of water at the front of the stage is echoed in the lighting, but this device, like so much in the production becomes repetitive and tired well before the end.