When Robert Lindsay's Aristotle Onassis dies – at the close of Martin Sherman's new biodrama – he goes down, symbolically, dancing.
The stage dissolves into a glimmering, sunlit sea (dazzling use of video projection), as Lindsay launches sinuously into the zeibekiko, one of the Greek folk dances Onassis loved. His movements are ritualistic and mesmerising, somewhere between mourning, predation and celebration, arms arcing like wings, legs slowly crisscrossing, then the toe raised behind, striking down hard.
Not many actors could pull this off, but Lindsay is scintillatingly confident in Nancy Meckler's production, which is also punctuated by rebetika folk songs whenever Onassis and his circle are partying on his yacht.
Drawing on Peter Evans's biography, Sherman's conceit is to draw parallels between the now legendary shipping magnate and Ancient Greek myths. In his youth, Onassis was obsessed with Homeric fables about power-wielding demigods and morally dodgy heroes. Then he witnessed the 1922 massacre in Smyrna, in which some of his relatives were killed, and he set sail to become a globe-trotting, unscrupulous tycoon.
Thus Onassis's old associate and advisor, Gawn Grainger's Costa, becomes the chorus and narrator, and the saga he relates focuses on Onassis's affair with Jackie Kennedy, which started when she was still married to JFK. From there, Sherman expands to dark conspiracy theories: Onassis's possible involvement in the assassination of Robert Kennedy (who scorned him); and his subsequent guilt-stricken belief that his son Alexandros's fatal plane crash was sabotage or, perhaps, divine retribution.
For sure, the evening is flawed. The chorus is made up of underdeveloped cameos. The analogy with Ancient Greek myths becomes laboured, and Anna Francolini is irritatingly melodramatic as Maria Callas, Onassis's ex. Yet her thunder thankfully turns tongue-in-cheek when the vengeful opera diva switches to a honeyed PR pronouncement: "I wish them nothing but happiness." Grainger is also knowingly ironic, as he introduces the welter of background data, a farcically elaborate flowchart showing the tycoon's web of friends, enemies and lovers in high places.
Uneven as it is, Onassis (rewritten since its 2008 Chichester try-out) is an outstanding venture in the commercial West End where, these days, new plays barely get a foot in the door. There has been a chorus of disapproval that has trounced the play as gossip-column garbage, pretentiously souped up. But unlike today's celebrity trivia, the Onassis story incorporates major issues, not least the international clout of unethical financiers.
On a more intimate level, the seduction scene between Lindsay's Onassis and Lydia Leonard's Jackie is charged with cultural as well as sexual tensions. The First Lady maintains an ice-cool demeanour, in evening dress, while being shamelessly salacious. Meanwhile, Lindsay's Onassis is mercurial: quietly sophisticated, wantonly crude, alluringly witty, subtly aggressive. It's a brilliant central performance.
Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett is really disappointing, especially after his recent NT hit, Earthquakes in London, so snazzily staged by Rupert Goold. By comparison, this premiere feels like an earlier effort, unconvincingly directed by Paines Plough's artistic director James Grieve.
We follow Kenneth (John Heffernan) and Sandra (Daniela Denby-Ashe) from 1967 – when they're pot-smoking Oxford undergrads – through their 1980s incarnation as smart execs and negligent parents. Then, circa 2009, they're well-off retirees being blamed for all of society's ills by their skint and screwed-up daughter, Rose (Rosie Wyatt).
Certainly, Bartlett raises the big issue of Britain's over-inflated property market. Yet the piece should, surely, have included the next generation, today's students with their mushrooming debt. As for the 1960s dialogue, the characters sound as if they're cribbing from a pocket history of the decade.
In Arthur Miller's late chamber piece, Broken Glass – revived with a strong cast that includes Antony Sher – a 1930s Jewish-American housewife feels so unloved that she is psychosomatically paralysed from the waist down. Sylvia (Lucy Cohu) intrigues Dr Hyman (Nigel Lindsay), who gives the talking cure a go. He duly discovers that her anxiety about Nazi atrocities over the Atlantic is subconsciously connected with her marital unhappiness. Her businessman husband (Sher) hates being labelled a Semite. The lesson the couple learns, though tragically too late, is to rise above incapacitating fear and guilt.
The shrink-play format can seem a too-obvious means of revealing folks' inner hang-ups. That said, there is some poignant detailing, not least in the emergent feelings of Hyman for his patient. Iqbal Khan's production is peculiarly drab, with peeling green walls. Notwithstanding, Nigel Lindsay has instant, earthy charisma and Cohu flashes of bitter spite under her shy sweetness. And, though mannered in his terminal paroxysms, Sher is on top form, acting uptight.
'Onassis' (0844 482 5170) to 5 Feb 2010; 'Love, Love, Love' (01752 230440) to 23 Oct then touring; 'Broken Glass' (020-7328 1000) to 27 Nov
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