Because, while the play is neat enough in places - Katrina Lindsay’s set-design, plays off the action not unlike Hockney’s Splash with its simple cubic slice of white maritime moderne and strip of pool water, and the dialogue is frequently taut with a hint of Golden Age Hollywood in its articulate slightly waspish tone - this is still, on a broad cultural level, the theatrical equivalent of your partner stumbling bleary-eyed out of a casino confessing to have ruined you and mortgaged the kids, and waving a blurry photo of himself on a digitised yacht staring at sacks of digitised money from the novelty photo-booth. The only sane response, aside from fury, is “who is this idiot?”, “what does he take me for?”.
As we are told from the off, the Greek shipping tycoon embodies the timeless qualities of a mythic Grecian figure, powerful, dangerous, a cut above mortal. That Demi-Gods frequently suffered from hubris, paranoia, a lack of accountability, is largely glossed over in favour of the compelling fact that they are powerful. So Onassis demonstrates this by leaving the “second most desirable woman in the world” Maria Callas, and seducing the number one, Jackie Kennedy, with a slightly perfunctory mixture of smoky autobiography and allusions to his massive wealth. Professing to be a revealing portrayal of power, the critique rests on a handful of crude references to commoditised womanhood (“nothing like her on the market”), which are quickly barged aside for the real purpose: two and a half hour’s turgid and uncritical revelling in the characters of the global elite.
Not that they are particularly engaging characters. We’ve all seen a toddler. We all know at least one person who is an unrepentant baby-bourgeois wanting it all their own way. Tedious, and usually male, when such a person is culturally enshrined as the global rich, and requires no reality principle to speak of, suddenly they are supposed to exert a fascination. A celebration of greed and compulsive possession, the commitments to fantasy and desire that underpin this play could have been delivered by Onassis just standing at the rails of his yacht, unzipping his fly, and urinating over us in the front row. Maybe we would have taken it as a mark of his allure, his compelling willfulness and dominant masculinity - as Jackie, played by the wan and narcotic Lydia Leonard certainly does - but more than likely we might be a bit, well, turned-off.
In the central role Robert Lindsay struggles to redeem the irredeemable, reminding us that he is an actor who can elegantly and vigorously join the dots. And if he sometimes errs on the side of Mediterranean exaggeration - a Zorba-cum-mafiosi stereotype - it is perhaps more the script’s constrained romanticisation of the character that has him always at a slight remove, dancing around a depth which is conspicuous by its absence. A sluggish lugubriousness hangs over the women characters, Anna Francolini as Maria Callas perks things up with some neurotic moments, but the overall effect is one of slow, self-regarding decadence.
If there are issues with characterisation there are catastrophes of context, for which the epithetical “clumsy” doesn't even begin to suffice. A herculean effort is made by Onassis’s right hand man Costa, played by a suitably embarrassed Gawn Grainger, to elaborate the various relationships involved in each scene. There are only so many tones of voice you can employ when standing there listing names of the global rich and their extra-marital interrelations, an endless skull-sapping litany of proper nouns, a taxonomic coma stretching interminably into each scene, and after a while the play simply gives up, projecting a diagram onto the wall. Arrows sketch one love affair to the other: from Robert Kennedy, to Maria Callas, to some guy I’ve never heard of, usually back to Robert Kennedy, to the Saudis, to the CIA - a welter of sex and conspiracy in the style of a cryptic powerpoint presentation from a meeting you never attended, or a slightly psychotic edition of Heat magazine with nothing of the latter's diverting qualities.
Throughout Aristotle is surrounded by his entourage, a flock of Grecian peasants, who, in between rounds of bouzouki and retsina take their time to wail and gnash and talk of the Gods. One invokes Poseidon, another asks ‘if we cannot blame the Gods, who can we blame?’ Here no distinction is made between chorus function and character, and so we get supposedly real people talking about Gods no one has believed in for two millenia, conveying the slightly deranged notion that the Enlightenment, let alone Christianity, hadn’t really reached rural Greece by 1975. And indeed, throughout the use of classical antiquity brings to mind the words of that French Aristo Victor Hugo who, in the preface to his play Cromwell wrote: "we are not ancient Greeks, and our lives do not resemble those of ancient Greeks. Greek drama was successful because it reflected the life of its times. Our drama will succeed only if it is allowed to do the same.”
Onassis uses the trope of classical theatre to make a narrative claim to timelessness: it airily suggests we have always been in love with the rich and monstrous, and waves aside any attempt to provide meaningful context or understanding, choosing instead a dimly-illuminated pornography of character. Thankfully the assumptions made about desire and human nature now feel dated. There are periods of history when it is no longer simply enough to say the rich and powerful exert a fascination, to simply assume we are happy to sit in the stalls and flabbily fantasize about yachts and the old men we have to blow to get onboard. This is 2010, and a lot of us are getting a bit grown up for that now.