He’s enjoyed a long career as a company actor, with frequent appearances for the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, but now Philip York has taken the plunge and done the one thing he thought he’d never do – a one-man show. Lies Have Been Told: An Evening With Robert Maxwell premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2003, and is now having a second London run at Trafalgar Studio 2. York took time out from pruning his bay tree to tell Caroline Bishop that playing the deceased pension-swindler has been a hugely enjoyable experience….
“The thing is about people,” muses Philip York, “is that they don’t get to the position they’re in by being outwardly big fat b*****ds.” He’s talking about someone many people regarded as the ultimate big fat b*****d – Robert Maxwell, the Czech-born Jewish businessman who escaped the Nazis and came to Britain during WW2, rose to spectacular heights in publishing and then fell equally spectacularly into debt, and off his yacht into the sea near Tenerife.
As we speak, York is about to head off to Trafalgar Studios for the technical rehearsal of Lies Have Been Told, the one-man show in which he, playing Maxwell, tells the story of the late media mogul’s life and suspicious death from Maxwell’s own perspective. Though he died in 1991, aged 68, as an overweight, unattractive man, Maxwell was, says York, “enormously charming. He had this wonderful smile, and a lot of women adored him apparently. He was very, very good looking when he was young, when you see early photos of him.”
It was this degeneration from charismatic businessman to fat old crook that piqued York’s interest in Maxwell. This, and the fact that he met the man himself, when attending the Central School of Speech and Drama along with Maxwell’s daughter, Ann. “He left a lasting impression in your mind because he had enormous charisma,” remembers York. “He walked into a room and everybody’s head turned and you stopped talking. He was also extremely big, about 6ft3, and extremely large.”
"He was enormously charming. He had this wonderful smile, and a lot of women adored him apparently"
Years later, long after Maxwell’s death and the subsequent scandal that he had stolen money from the Mirror pension fund to save himself from bankruptcy, York decided that the controversy and the charisma of the man made Maxwell the ideal subject matter for a one-man show. Not a “proven writer” himself (“I scribble away poetry and read it to myself and put it in the bin”), York pitched the idea to his old friend, the playwright Rod Beacham, whom he had worked with on No Big Deal at the Orange Tree Theatre in 1994. Researching from archive material such as BBC interviews with Maxwell, the pair came up with what York terms “a psychological approach rather than a condemnation”. The idea of the play was not to ridicule and condemn the man, nor to excuse him, but to present the facts and interpret them from Maxwell’s own viewpoint. For York, the fundamental interest was “why does someone with huge potential screw up their life? He won the Military Cross, he spoke eight different languages, why did he screw up so badly?”
In pondering this question, York and Beacham have created a highly successful show that premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2003, came to Trafalgar Studios last year, and popped in on the New End and Middlesbrough before returning for this second London run. It hasn’t been without some hard slog – York learnt the hefty script for the 1hr40min show whilst starring in Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus Of Disapproval in Scarborough, which meant getting up at 8:00 and memorising lines for six hours before performing in the evening. But it was worth it, as good reviews followed in Edinburgh and audiences have responded well. “There’s been a phenomenal reaction,” says York, “I think it’s because we don’t have colourful crooks anymore.”
I get the feeling that York is quite fond of playing colourful crooks. A pretty colourful character himself (though in no way crooked), York seems a jovial, friendly man who talks a lot and laughs a lot more. He enjoys a bet on the football and “devours most of a bottle of wine” after a performance. Much like his relationship with wine, he likes playing characters he can really get stuck into (those he would still love to tackle include Claudius in Hamlet and Kent in King Lear). “It’s fun to play somebody who’s outrageous – it’s one of the joys of acting,” he says. He has no qualms about playing a man that many people hated, even when it prompts a negative reaction from the audience. “Some people get very upset – a man shouted at me in the last performance ‘it’s just wrong’”. One newspaper reviewer got so worked up that he shouted ‘Shut up you fat b*****d’. York took it as a compliment.
"Why does someone with huge potential screw up their life?"
He is able to deal with this kind of incident because he feels the play is presented in a very fair way. He and Beacham have constructed it as a “subjective view of Maxwell from his own point of view”. They don’t claim he is always telling the truth, though the play’s biographical facts are true, but “in no way is any part of the play an excuse for what he did, we do not whitewash him at all”. However, as it is told from Maxwell’s perspective the audience has to “decipher where the lies are being told. It’s the way he interprets his own behaviour which leaves the audience thinking, I hope. I think he condemns himself out of his own mouth frankly, but you learn a little bit more about him along the journey.”
“I think he was a crook, there’s no question about it,” continues York. “But sometimes there are reasons, not excuses, why people behave in certain ways. He literally lived on a diet of maize until he was about 16, they grew up in enormous poverty, and then all his family were wiped out by the Nazis – his mother, grandparents, his brothers. One I believe is still alive. But there was a big resentment there, you know, seeing your whole family wiped out. It doesn’t excuse any resultant behaviour but sometimes you think, well, perhaps there’s more to this story than I thought.”
He thinks that Maxwell himself would have considered the play fair, too. “We don’t have time in the play to investigate everything, we only touch upon things. It was very, very murky, the deals back in the 80s and before that. But you know,” he adds, “I’d challenge anybody to investigate any major successful entrepreneur to find they’d all been squeaky clean. I doubt it very much.”
A testament to the play’s fairness is that there have been no libel cases, though “you can’t libel the dead, that’s what I did find out,” and Maxwell’s family have taken it well. York did not ask for their approval nor did he have any contact with them whatsoever during the writing and preparing of the play. “All the family have been to see it, completely unsponsored by me, they just turned up,” says York. “Kevin [Maxwell’s youngest son, cleared, in 1996, along with older brother Ian Maxwell, of conspiracy to defraud the Mirror pensioners] in particular said he thought it was very fair. I met him at the Edinburgh Festival in 2003. I had a card sent round saying will I please come out and see Kevin Maxwell, and I thought ‘Oh God here goes another lawsuit!’ In fact he was very fair about it, he was very generous and did a lot of publicity shots.”
"In no way is any part of the play an excuse for what he did, we do not whitewash him at all"
Maxwell’s widow Elizabeth – Betty – has also been in the audience on three occasions, and made suggestions which York has incorporated into the play, like the fact that her late husband used to call her Betushka, rather than Betty. “I wouldn’t go so far as saying they’re on board,” says York of the family’s feelings towards the play, “but we are at hand-shaking distance.”
For York himself, as well as being an “extraordinary experience”, the play has been something of a crossroads. Having always been a company actor it’s been a big change, at 55 (his birthday was on Tuesday, the night of the first preview), to do this sort of thing. He’d love for his performance to be captured on film, which may be possible given the current mêlée of film producers buzzing around the project. However, industry-savvy York is philosophical about his part in any celluloid version of the show. “One has to be grown up and realistic and think well it doesn’t matter if you’re the best person for it, you may not be the right box office [draw]. After 33 years in the business, this happens!” he chuckles. “You learn not to resent it, you just think it’s a fact of life.”
In the meantime, he’s taking Lies Have Been Told back to the Edinburgh Festival this summer, and hopes to spark the interest of foreign theatre producers – “I think it would be lovely to go to Prague with it, or maybe South Africa,” he says.
There only remains the big question – how does York think his alter-ego died?
“I was almost convinced he had a funny turn, a dickie heart, and fell off [his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine], before I started this. But you know I’m not sure now. He did know an awful lot of things about an awful lot of people,” he says, going on to expound on certain theories he’s heard. “I’m happy that the conspiracy theories keep on going because it keeps the interest [in the play] going. He’s never out of the headlines.”
One such theory is that Maxwell faked his death and is still alive somewhere. York laughs loudly, “Well I did ask Ian and Kevin about that when they came one night. They were both there at the funeral and Ian described in great detail how they had to get four extremely strong people to lower his body.” So it was definitely him then? “I think it probably was.”
Lies Have Been Told: An Evening With Robert Maxwell plays at Trafalgar Studio 2 until 15 July.