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Lies Have Been Told

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 22 April 2008

Lies Have Been Told about Robert Maxwell. He’s not the man we all thought he was and has risen from the dead to set the record straight. In doing so he deals only in indisputable fact, not spin-twisted tales and tittle-tattle. He tells us this again and again. So was he really more than a pension pilfering media mogul? Matthew Amer attended the first night of Rod Beacham’s new play to find out.

Robert Maxwell strikes me as a fairly nice chap. He is pleasant enough to the rest of the press night audience and to me, addressing us personally, making us feel at home in the intimate 100-seat Trafalgar Studio 2.

The small theatre has been transformed into a study for Maxwell’s tale; polished wood furniture is garnished with white plastic fax machines and phones, a spot of bubbly and a tub of caviar.

Maxwell, played by Philip York, whose original idea led to the creation of the production, is at home and relaxed in these surrounds; unsurprised 100 people have joined him in his place of work. His story unfolds, as he tells it, both in the present and as recollections. While in the process of attempting to buy a number of papers, he looks back over his life, disposing of his costume padding to become the young, lean Robert Maxwell who fought with the allies in the Second World War. This is the pattern for the show; it switches from direct conversation engaging the audience, to action as it happens and retelling of events from the past.

Maxwell’s greed is apparent. He spends much of the evening glugging champagne like Diet Coke and munching caviar piled like mini-mountains onto crackers. But even with the greed and disregard, Maxwell’s charisma makes him likeable. You can’t help but enjoy being in his company and listening to what he has to say. He even explains his technique for manipulating people and still you want to listen to him. Nefarious he may have been, but maybe death has changed him for the better, for during the two hours we spent together he was fine company, always ready with a witticism to get him through.

It is not all good humour and laughs. The good-natured, everybody’s friend Bob Maxwell becomes serious and thoughtful when talking about his family who were killed by the Nazis, becomes angered when referred to as a foreigner or an outsider, and takes a very sinister turn when talking about playing dirty. He’s not always amiable, and these turns often come as a shock.

What Maxwell does clearly recognise and point out on a couple of occasions, is that people will believe whatever they want to believe, whether it is the truth or not. He tells two different stories about his escape from the Nazis – one involving a disabled guard of whom Maxwell claims “I should have killed him, but he only had one arm!” – and at least three different scenarios for his eventual death.

How much of what he tells us is the truth and how much fabrication? Can he actually be believed, and even if he can, can you believe a play presenting the words of someone who cannot argue against them? I don’t think it matters as, for the two hours spent in Maxwell’s company, we can believe exactly what we want to, as he says. And as I said, I quite like him, he seems like a nice enough chap and tells an enthralling story.

Lies Have Been Told plays at the Trafalgar Studio 2 until 28 January.

MA

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