Multi-millionaire publishing mogul, one-time labour member of parliament and totally larger-than-life character Robert Maxwell, died in somewhat mysterious circumstances in 1991 at the age of 68. His body was discovered floating in the Atlantic Ocean after he was found to be missing from his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislane (named after his daughter) while cruising off the Canary Islands.
Based on the life of Ian Robert Maxwell, ‘Lies Have Been Told’ is currently playing at studio 2 at the recently developed Trafalgar Studios. Studio 2 is dinky in comparison with Studio 1, and has ‘double’ seats that are a little awkward to negotiate, particularly if you’re not on speaking terms with your neighbour, since ‘synchronised sitting’ is required if one is actually to get into one’s seat. Still, it’s a neat and intimate space that’s a welcome new addition to the West End, as well as being simply perfect for this type of one-man show.
In 1923, Maxwell was born Ján Ludvik Hoch in Czechoslovakia of a poor Jewish family, most of whom were killed by the Nazis after their invasion in 1939. However, Maxwell not only survived the Nazi massacres but, almost unbelievably, managed to battle his way across Europe to England where he joined the British army in which he was to gain rapid promotion, changing his name a couple of times along the way.
After the war, Maxwell went into publishing using his army contacts to found a business initially built upon publishing scientific books from occupied Germany. In time, Maxwell acquired several British newspapers, among them the Daily Mirror, pitting his wits against the likes of Rupert Murdoch along the way. However, whilst building his publishing empire, Maxwell accumulated enormous debts, and his dubious financial dealings attracted the attention of regulatory authorities who judged him not to be ‘a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company’. In the end, it transpired that Maxwell had been using funds from his employees’ pension funds to meet his financial obligations, thereby ruining the futures of thousands of employees.
‘Lies Have Been Told’ starts with two telephones ringing on what is obviously an executive’s desk – or at the very least, the desk of someone with considerable power and influence. The phone keeps ringing. Suddenly there’s the sound of a toilet flushing. Then in walks ‘Captain Bob’, the name Maxwell was most often called by arch-enemy ‘Private Eye’ (the British satirical magazine that was sued by Maxwell for suggesting he looked like ‘a criminal’– its editor apparently said at the outcome of the case: ‘I’ve just paid a fat cheque to a fat Czech’). ‘Captain Bob’ picks up the phone “Fuck off”, says Maxwell. The phone rings again. Maxwell answers it, and says the same thing again. Maxwell helps himself to some caviar and a biscuit before the phone rings again, and Maxwell answers with an even more vitriolic reply.
I soon understood why the usher advised me on entering the theatre, that the show contained bad language from the start. It certainly does, and in considerable quantities. And I’ve had occasion to mention bad language before in connection with my review of Billy Elliot. But in that show, I was concerned that the audience were victims of double standards: happy to hear child actors swearing like troopers on stage, but preventing their own children from hearing bad language on TV before 9pm. In ‘Lies Have Been Told’ however, the language is essential in describing, and indeed understanding, Maxwell’s character.
Based on an original idea by Philip York who plays Maxwell (and apparently met Maxwell on several occasions) ‘Lies Have Been Told’ is not a totally factual account of Maxwell’s life. How could it be, given that some of the ‘facts’ were known only to Maxwell himself – including, possibly, his own demise? But having dug around a little, I find that much of the ‘factual’ content in the play seems to be accurate. However, there’s also a considerable element of ‘fiction’ that cannot be so readily verified.
I’m not sure that this play would work even half so well if it were not for the uncanny resemblance between Philip York and ‘Captain Bob’. An accident of birth, genes or both has provided York with a great opportunity, but it’s not a performance based solely on being a ‘look alike’. York uses all his considerable acting abilities to convince us that he really IS Maxwell. And most of us in the audience were indeed convinced, and terrified! It’s a remarkably absorbing, compelling, and hypnotic performance.
Rod Beachams’ script also deserves considerable praise. There are some exceptionally funny lines throughout the play. For example, Maxwell describes Rupert Murdoch as ‘a privileged Australian turd’, or ‘about as British as a kangaroo sandwich’. But it’s a well-balanced script that seeks to shed some light on Maxwell’s motivations – for example, wanting the thing that most eluded him in childhood: ‘enough’.
Having seen Maxwell on TV on a number of occasions, I found him a typically pompous, overbearing tycoon who would stop at nothing to get his own way. I didn’t shed a tear at his death. But Beacham’s script and York’s performance managed to bring me a little closer to understanding Maxwell, even if it didn’t change my opinion of him. It’s a remarkable piece of theatre, and really not to be missed.