Lies Have Been Told : An evening with Robert Maxwell June 2006
Revivals continue to dominate the drama schedules in London's West End, but 'Lies Have Been Told' isn't a revival in the sense that it's an old play reborn - it's actually quite a new play. No, it's a revival of a person, or to put it more precisely, a resurrection. For in his jaw-dropping one-man show, Philip York almost literally brings back to life, for 90 minutes or so, an infamous character who passed into oblivion in mysterious circumstances back in 1991 - publishing mogul, sometime labour MP and Nazi fighter, Robert Maxwell.
The play is set in Maxwell's private office, which designer Michael Taylor has populated with sufficient elegant furniture to suggest opulence and wealth, without overwhelming the intimate venue. The phone is ringing as the lights go up, and after a lengthy pause, we hear a toilet flush, and suddenly Maxwell's huge form storms onto the set and grabs the phone. He answers a succession of three calls in the same way: shouting expletives at the caller, and then slamming down the receiver. It's a clever and very funny way to start a play, because we instantly recognise a man who's in command, but who's also rather crude - certainly in terms of his use of language. And as he slugs down copious quantities of champagne and vodka, and munches his way through crackers and caviare - telling us it costs £250 per ounce - we realise this is a man hooked if not surfeiting on power and wealth, and not doing so in a style befitting a true 'captain of industry'.
In spite of his irascible and bombastic reputation, Maxwell soon starts communicating almost on chummy terms with the audience, sharing with us his business objectives and intrigues, railing against his foes - such as Rupert Murdoch - whilst relating his life story along the way. He insists that 'lies have been told' about him, and starts to put the record straight. Of course in the end, much of the 'record' as such was largely known only to Maxwell himself, so there's a good deal that cannot be readily verified. But we do learn about the extreme poverty of his childhood, his escape from the Nazis – who butchered his entire family – and his subsequent enlistment in the British army which led to the award of a Military Cross (though after his death it also became known that he had been under investigation for war crimes).
We also learn about his dubious business dealings and the huge borrowings which finally weighed down his media empire and led Maxwell to purloin funds from his employees' pension fund. And the competing conspiracy theories about Maxwells' death – he 'fell' from his private yacht while cruising near the Canary Islands – are put forward, though nothing definite is concluded.
The last time I saw this play was at the same venue back in January this year. On that occasion, Philip York was on fine form, and he's equally good, if not better, on this occasion. There's more poignancy in the final scene, which craves sympathy for the young boy from a poor Jewish family who never had enough to eat during his childhood, and lost his entire family at the hands of the Nazis. But though neither Rod Beacham's excellent script, nor York's performance in any way condones or apologises for Maxwell's unscrupulous business dealings, they do make salient points about the man's motivation. In the end, it's hard not to feel a sense of sadness that things went wrong with Maxwell, the 'Bouncing Czech', because he was obviously both intelligent and brave. 'Lies Have Been Told' in a sense helps us re-evaluate Maxwell, and the success of the play is in separating the pathos we feel for Maxwell the boy, with the downright contempt we feel for Maxwell, the obnoxious, over-bearing, dishonest tycoon.
What makes this production so compelling is the 'rags to riches' nature of the story, a well-crafted and witty script by Rod Beacham, and excellent direction by Alan Dosser. On top of all that, there's a stunning performance by Philip York - whose uncanny resemblance to Maxwell, whilst aiding him enormously in reincarnating this extraordinary figure, in no way detracts from what is sheer quality acting, if not a tour de force.
Though the audience didn't laugh quite as much as the last time I saw the show, they were more appreciative at the end. I'm not sure whether they were over-awed by York's Maxwell, simply stunned, or even terrified of him. But there's no doubt they relished the performance as the comments I overheard on the way out readily testified. And quite rightly so, because this is spell-binding theatre of the first order.