Onassis Plots to Kill Kennedy, Hamlet Goes Grungy: London Stage

Robert Lindsay as Aristotle Onassis and Lydia Leonard as Jacqueline Kennedy in "Onassis" by Martin Sherman at the Novello Theatre, London. The cat-and-mouse relationship between Onassis and Kennedy fails to ignite the drama. Photographer: Tristram Kenton/Peter Thompson PR via Bloomberg

The ostensible mystery at the heart of the play “Onassis” concerns a suggestion that shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis paid for the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The real mystery, though, is how such a clunky, amateurish piece sailed into London’s West End.

Martin Sherman’s offering first appeared in Chichester in 2008 under the title “Aristo.” Would that his bio-drama had stayed there and biodegraded in the nearby English Channel.

Based on Peter Evans’s book “Nemesis,” the play contains the allegation that in 1968 Onassis paid $1.2 million to Palestinian terrorist Mahmoud Hamshari to fund the assassination of presidential candidate Kennedy. Supposedly, he wanted to remove all opposition to his marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy.

Since the allegation is shrouded in maybes and what-ifs, it feels curiously leaky. Once you add in gobs of back story and undigested exposition delivered straight to the audience by a pseudo Greek chorus, you have a straight-to-scrapyard wreck.

The only scenes written with any seaworthiness are those involving the cat-and-mouse relationship between Onassis and Jacqueline (Lydia Leonard). There are too few of them to float the piece as a whole.

Even the turbulent and operatic thrills of Ari’s life involving Maria Callas never whip up a storm. The 20th century’s most exciting soprano is reduced to a bit player who pops on to deliver the occasional Medea-like curse to the gods and then pops off again. In Anna Francolini’s performance, spirited though it is, Callas sounds like a Brooklyn waitress.

Charming Macho

Robert Lindsay gives the title character a ruthless charm and back-slapping Mediterranean machismo. Since there are plenty of long self-justifying speeches to the chorus, and almost all dramatic conflict is removed -- no mean feat considering how many enemies Onassis made -- it still feels more like a vaudevillian turn than a role.

Director Nancy Meckler sets the action on a low platform in front of a blue Aegean sky. With the help of an occasional railing descending from the flies, the stage becomes a yacht. I see it all sailing swiftly into the sunset. Rating: *.

Enough of the labored marine metaphors. To hear the English language used at its best, it’s hard to beat the textual clarity of Nicholas Hytner’s new production of “Hamlet” at the National Theatre. In his modern-dress staging the actors make the most of the poetry, and almost every shade of meaning and flicker of motivation is as clear as could be.

Bitter Hamlet

Hytner presents Elsinore as a modern surveillance state, with dark-suited apparatchiks sporting ear pieces in every corner. Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet is shown early on disaffected with this world. He’s a bitter, grungy teenager whose room is littered with coffee cups and cigarette packets, and whose manner is one of adolescent cynicism and witty mockery. If by the end a note of spiritual transformation is missing, his is still a highly engrossing performance.

He’s matched by Clare Higgins as a blowsy drunken Gertrude and Ruth Negga as a particularly fragile Ophelia. Some of the secondary roles, though good, don’t reach the same heights, and thin-voiced Patrick Malahide lacks authority as Claudius.

Designer Vicki Mortimer uses just three movable walls to create the various locations. Though it’s utilitarian and efficient rather than exciting, Jon Clark’s lighting helps create an atmosphere of oppression and mystery. Rating: ***.

Lustful Tyrant

There’s another mystery over at English National Opera: Why did anyone want to stage Handel’s slow, motivationally unworkable opera “Radamisto” (1720)?

It tells the story of evil tyrant Tiridate (Ryan McKinny). He spends the opera persecuting the object of his lust Zenobia (Christine Rice) and her noble husband Radamisto (Lawrence Zazzo). After causing much weeping and wailing, he suddenly changes heart and becomes a good person in time for the final chorus. With a deus ex machina so outrageous, it’s no wonder the librettist wanted to remain anonymous.

Christine Rice sings with beautiful tone and thrilling technique, and countertenor Zazzo is in good form too.

They’re not enough to rescue David Alden’s production from the stodginess of its slow, stylized gestures or from the silliness of its set. Designer Gideon Davey creates a few curved moving panels that look like a 1970s Indian restaurant. With Lawrence Cummings’s unvaried conducting, it all feels like a long evening. Rating: **.

“Onassis” is at the Novello Theatre. Information: http://www.ambassadortickets.com or +44-844-871-7627.

“Hamlet” is at the National Theatre. See or call http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.

“Radamisto” is in repertory at English National Opera through Nov. 4, http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200.

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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