An Evening With Robert Maxwell, Trafalgar Studios, London
Like the man - only cuddlier
Sunday 15 January 2006
Philip York struts on to the stage looking so like the real Robert Maxwell, that momentarily it could be the man himself. He has even captured some of the old monster's mannerisms, presumably from a study of the footage.
For an hour and a half he delivers an account of a meteoric life that ended mysteriously 15 years ago, when Maxwell tumbled off his luxury yacht one night into the sea off the Canary Islands. As he worked on the script, author Rod Beacham must presumably have wrestled with this dilemma: given that the real Maxwell told shocking lies, do you allow his fictional counterpart to lie - in which case the audience is left all at sea, like Maxwell's corpse, not knowing what to believe - or do you make him tell the truth?
The script is, in fact, peppered with a few shaggy dog stories, not of his own invention, like the fanciful tale that Maxwell told about how he escaped the Nazis, but Mr Beacham has meticulously flagged them up, so the audience know when they are being had. Through almost the entire script, he has rejected everything but the provable facts from the vast store of Maxwell apocrypha. When facts are scarce, for instance when dealing with Maxwell's unexplained death, he has taken the best available explanation.
So, it is possible to come away from a brief evening's entertainment with a head full of accurate information about one of the legendary villains of our time. Unfortunately, the outcome is a character smaller, cuddlier, less impressive and less frightening that the real Maxwell, a cross between a self-aware villain in the tradition of Richard III and a clown.
This is so from the moment he walks on stage, to pick up a telephone receiver, swears at the caller, and slam down the receiver. Maxwell swore in real life, of course, but more for fun than in anger or frustration. He would tell someone to fuck off for the pleasure of scaring them, like a small child chasing pigeons. When he was angry, he was dangerously controlled. If there was a caller on the other end of the line that he did not want to speak to, he did not waste breath on them: he switched them off.
Though the real Maxwell had a bandit's charm and rough humour, he never saw a joke that related to himself. On this hallowed topic he was boring, dishonest, and childishly vain. If he had really been able to tell his side of his story - believe me, I knew Robert Maxwell - it would have been excruciating. Therein lies the flaw in his fine night's entertainment - it is too funny and truthful to be true to life.
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