Rod Beacham's solo play wholly deserves the greater exposure provided by Trafalgar Studio 2's policy of offering a West End-situated transfer venue for shows from the London fringe or small-scale tours. Subtitled An Evening With Robert Maxwell, Beacham's script refuses to simplify the tangle of half-truths and myths surrounding the engaging, charismatic, egotistical fraudster and media robber-baron.
It also affords actor Philip York, whose idea the piece was, the opportunity for a tour de force of ebullient antihero acting. Rumbling on to the stage, he immediately answers three ringing phones: "Maxwell... fuck off!", "Maxwell... fuck off!", and "Maxwell... fuck right off!" He bellows affably at the audience, whilst quaffing champagne and scoffing caviar (the verbs scarcely do justice to the actions) and teasingly offering us some, before barking, "You want it, you earn it, like I had to."
Maxwell was a self-made man, all right: "Robert Maxwell" was the fourth different name carried by the man born Jan Ludvik Hoch. When his second-act account of how he made his way to Britain from Czechoslovakia during WW2 conflicts with his first-act version of the same period, he chuckles it off. The secret, he says, is to tell any lies, no matter how fantastical, "as long as they're the lies they want to hear." That is how "the bouncing Czech" rebounded from a damning DTI report when he tried to buy the Daily Herald newspaper in 1964, and a rebuff by the shareholders of the News Of The World a few years later, to become owner of the Daily Mirror in 1984, and how by 1990-1 he almost succeeded in disguising his companies' vast debts by plundering his employees' pension funds.
The script takes a skeleton of what he refers to as "indisputable fact" and builds upon it a Maxwellian, corpulent but commanding body of self-aggrandisement. It's a neat dramatic trick of York's Maxwell to remove his fat-padding early on, as if to indicate that what follows is unadorned when of course it's all just another illusion. The final twenty minutes or so deal with his mysterious death in 1991, off his yacht in the Atlantic; he gives us a plausible tale of murder, then of suicide, then of accident, before waving each away with a scornful guffaw of "Is there nothing you people won't believe?" Flim-flam, but what bravura flim-flam.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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