“People know three stories about me: I’m fucking Jackie Kennedy. I’m fucking Maria Callas and I’m fucking rich.” Given the notoriously loud mouth of its protagonist, it’s unsurprising that Martin Sherman’s “Onassis” seeks to explain the glamour attached to the egomaniacal Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Unfortunately, this “What becomes a monster most?” bio-drama comes to no conclusions besides extreme wealth and personal magnetism. Robert Lindsay captures the latter with magnificent swagger, but cannot compensate for the play’s severe lack of drama.

A rewrite of Sherman’s “Aristo,” which played at Chichester Festival Theater two years ago, the play has a host of characters but is, in essence, a star vehicle. That’s appropriate given Onassis’ reputation for dominating both the bedroom and the boardroom. The trouble is, we have to take almost all of this on trust, since the static play is bewilderingly low on action.

In order to establish the intricacies of Onassis’ personal and business network, Costa (Gawn Grainger), Onassis’ second-in-command, delivers a comically long-winded “who’s screwing who” lecture. If that were an isolated incident of self-conscious upfront exposition, it might have worked. But lumpen narration bedevils the evening almost throughout.

Onassis’ life was a series of macho confrontations, but instead of allowing audiences to be privy to them, Sherman presents most of them via unengaging reported speech. You’d think a play that posited that Onassis personally paid to have Bobby Kennedy shot — “the cocksucker had it coming” — might manage to make high drama out it. Instead, Onassis reports the fact to Jackie on their wedding night and they discuss it — but not for too long, as there’s more ground to cover.

Matters are not improved by the addition of thankless subsidiary characters who sit about, occasionally do a little Greek dancing and drop in the odd comment. Their ruminations on the workings of fate and destiny stem from Onassis’ fascination with the same, but their invocations and warnings come off as portentous. Greek tragedy, it ain’t.

Prowling, growling and grinning like a wolf in glasses, Lindsay clearly relishes playing a man who forever gets his own way. It’s a kind of tour de fierce, with Lindsay all but winking at the audience.

Sadly, Lydia Leonard as Jackie is wasted; she gets to look intrigued in her initial flirtation with Onassis and largely bored therafter. And an over-wigged, over-costumed Anna Francolini is miscast as a pinched Maria Callas whose accent tours the world.

This being the era when wealth was measured by the size of your yacht, much of the action in Nancy Meckler’s dutiful, one-rhythm production takes place at sea with Lorna Heavey’s projections and Ben Ormerod’s lighting dappling Katrina Lindsay’s predominantly white set with waves and sunlight. An obsession with surface could arguably describe Onassis’ behavior, but overall superficiality cannot have been the intention behind “Onassis.”


Novello Theater, London; 1,080 seats; £49.50 top

  • Production: An Aukin/Vogel for DAP, Playful Prods., Act Prods. & Bob Bartner in association with Jamie Hendry & David Lightbody presentation of a Chichester Festival Theater Prods. in association with Derby Live presentation of a play in two acts by Martin Sherman based on material from the book "Nemesis" by Peter Evans. Directed by Nancy Meckler.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Katrina Lindsay; lighting, Ben Ormerod; sound, Andrea J Cox; music, Ilona Sekacz; video and projections, Lorna Heavey; production stage manager, Anthony Field. Opened, reviewed Oct. 12, 2010. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
  • Cast: Aristotle Onassis - Robert Lindsay Costa - Gawn Grainger Jackie Kennedy - Lydia Leonard Alexandro - Tom Austin Maria Callas - Anna Francolini Eleni - Liz Crowther Theo - Rob Hastie Yanni - John Hodgkinson Dimitra - Sue Kelvin With: Rachel Barrington, Suanne Braun, Nigel Carrington, Ben Grove, Matthew Roman, Graeme Taylor.
  • Music By: