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When Bobby met Terry…

 

Geraldine Bedell, The Observer 4th March 2007

 

She was birdlike, he was elephantine. She was saintly, he was a crook. She helped the poor, he helped himself. Mother Teresa and Robert Maxwell may seem at first an odd couple, but opposites have a habit of attracting. And as the first stage play for 25 years by Ian Curteis (whose television work includes the controversial The Falklands Play and Philby, Burgess and Maclean) suggest, the may not actually have been as opposite as all that.

 

The tiny, apparently unworldly nun in the famous white habit with blue edging, and the fleshy tycoon with the habit of expropriating what wasn’t his, met in London on Friday the 15th April 1988, in Maxwell’s London flat. The only other person present was a photographer, provided by the Daily Mirror to ensure documentary evidence of the historic encounter. Not that the pair of them seem, in the picture, to be doing much encountering: he’s on the telephone and she’s on her rosary. Perhaps they bonded over a shared talent for image-creation.

 

In The Bargain, Curteis speculates amusingly about what else might have taken place at that meeting between Bouncing Czech and Albania’s modern saint: what they could have wanted from each other and how the beady old woman with God on her side and the bombast who spoke eight languages might have screwed down a deal. Curteis’s research persuaded him that “in a curious way, they were rather attracted to each other”. In the play, he claims that when Maxwell fell from his yacht into the sea three years later, the money the Daily Mirror had collected from readers and put aside for Mother Teresa was the only part of his labyrinthine financial affairs he hadn’t plundered.

 

Bob Maxwell and Mother Teresa shared guile, a talent for self-promotion, ruthlessness in pursuit of their ambitions, chaotic accounts improperly audited (or in Mother Teresa’s case, no accounts), and, Curteis suggests, an internal crisis.  Both were also, usefully for drama, consummate performers. In Curteis’s reading, Mother Teresa knows quite enough about vanity to wind Maxwell up into a competition about which of them had the more terrible childhood and has had more famous people feeling sorry for them – if, indeed, winding up is all it is.

 

Curteis read all the biographies of both and says the authors don’t agree about anything, which gave him a convenient amount of leeway. His play turns on inner turmoil: Maxwell’s inability to cope with his family’s deaths at Auschwitz, his repudiation of his Jewish ancestry and his visceral hatred of the poverty of his childhood; Mother Teresa’s now-documented but then-secret failure of faith. For many years, the head of the Missionaries of Charity confessed to her spiritual advisor who, inconveniently for someone based in India, happened to be in Germany. Obviously, she had to write. Copies of some of these letters survived and, these days, are available on the internet. They suggest that for most of her ministry, Mother Teresa believed herself to be in spiritual darkness.

 

“I feel just a terrible pain of loss,” she wrote, “of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” As the Maxwell of the play points out, this was not what she told everyone when she collected her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

 

Although Curteis’s Mother Teresa is capable of naivety – professing amazement that her Calcutta bus pass isn’t acceptable on the number 79; suggesting the Royal Albert Hall would make a good Mother Teresa Home for London’s destitute – she’s tougher than a DTI inspector. (The complexity of both characters is helped by the presence of a couple of fictional sidekicks: Maxwell’s has the function of making him a bit more appealing and vulnerable, Mother Teresa’s is a toilet cleaner with a background in medicine and international finance.)

 

Who outwits whom? Does Mother Teresa offer Cap’n Bob a spiritual get-out clause? Does she decide she’s found a good place for her pension? The play begins a national tour on 13 March at the Theatre Royal Bath, and stars Michael Pennington, Anna Calder-Marshall and Susan Hampshire.

 


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