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The Bargain

 

Bath Daily News, March 2007, Jackie Chappell

 

It was a fascinating idea on the part of writer Ian Curteis to dramatise a meeting between a devil and a saint.

 

The devil in question is publishing magnate Robert Maxwell – demonised fro all time for stripping the Daily Mirror’s pension fund – and the saint is the tough little nun, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, both long since dead.

 

The playwright has taken the facts of their meeting in London on April 15 1988 – about which nothing is know beyond a photograph that recorded the event – and has created a drama based on what is documented of their lives and their characters.

 

The result is The Bargain, which opened at the Theatre Royal this week before heading off to London’s West End.

 

It stars Michael Pennington as Robert Maxwell and Anna Calder-Marshall as Mother Teresa with Susan Hampshire as Sister, M Mother Teresa’s fixer and financial wizard, and Jonathan Coy as Side Kick, Maxwell’s gopher.

 

In many ways the play is nicely balanced, as the two protagonists skirt around each other, sniffing out each other’s weaknesses in a bid to further their own aims.

 

Their encounters establish similar poverty-stricken backgrounds – she was an Albanian subject to the pogroms of that country, he was a Jew whose parents died in Auschwitz – and the fact that they are well matched in ruthlessness.

 

Anna Calder-Marshall is absolutely superb in the role of Mother Teresa, convincing in both her wiliness and in her determination to get what she wants at all costs to help the poor.

 

The Bargain is also quite funny in places. When Maxwell taunts her about the lack of proper accounts for all the billions that she has received, and asks where all the money has gone, she says: “When anyone asks I say I gave it to the poor and they go away.”

 

“Is she tougher that I am?” he asks himself. The answer is probably yes, for despite Maxwell’s attempts to blackmail her into accepting a dodgy deal in return for money, she holds out. “You have not yet heard my price,” she tells him constantly.

 

Without giving the ending away, the pair shamelessly exploit each other’s weaknesses and ultimately arrive at a mutually acceptable, if barely legal, deal.

 

While good dramatic tension is established between these strange bedfellows, there are occasional lapses where it falls flat – although with another week to run the play has time enough to pick up pace.

 

Michael Pennington is a good, if slightly pantomime villain version of Maxwell and Jonathan Coy is a credible put-upon Side Kick.

 

But I found it hard to accept Susan Hampshire as Sister – she was just so, well, Susan Hampshire and I half expected Archie to appear at and moment and ask, in a Scottish accent, why she was pretending to be a nun.

 

 

 

The Times, 23rd March 2007, Benedict Nightinale

 

On the face of it, the meeting that Ian Curteis recreates in The Bargain could belong in a game of Consequences. You know the sort of thing: Mae West met Lord Reith in a children’s playground, or Trinny and Susannah met Galileo in a Montana militia camp. The more unlikely the better.

 

But Robert Maxwell did meet Mother Teresa in London in 1988, although nobody knows that was said before the sinner got himself photographed beside the saint. This means that the Bargain belongs to that increasingly popular dramatic genre, speculative biography. Did the monarch really share an intimate moment with a Highland stag, as she does in Peter Morgan’s The Queen, and did Brown and Blair make a pact in an Islington eatery, as in his The Deal? Did Maxwell try to blackmail Mother Teresa by threatening to expose her dark nights of the soul, and did she bamboozle him into helping her nuns thrive in Russia? Search me.

 

It’s a worrying genre because you can’t know where the truth ends and imagination begins. But, as Helen Mirren proved, it can produce excellent acting. And Michael Pennington, not the most obviously assertive or stoutest of actors, is a splendid Maxwell. Tummy protruding from his preposterous red braces or blue suit, hair glistening above his funereal eyebrows, feet tripping with incongruous lightness round his posh pad, his mouth gorging caviar as he orders the sidekick her calls Sidekick to inform Teresa of his plain tastes, he scowls, bullies, manoeuvres, manipulates, yet subtly signals a vulnerability inside.

 

Mary you, there’s something psychologically pat in Curteis’s suggestion that Maxwell is still the insecure infant who never got over the Nazis’ murder of his parents. There’s also something a bit obvious in his handling of the central encounter. Anna Calder-Marshall’s tiny, forceful Teresa can’t pass a beggar without offering aid; Maxwell, who remembers poverty, hates and despises the poor. He exudes cynicism; she stands for love. He’s worldly; she’s worldly-wise.  He’s tough; she’s tougher. And so on.

 

Will he persuade her to lend her name to a World Encyclopaedia of Religion that’s actually a cover for money laundering? Will he reward her by getting Mirror readers to finance her work in Britain, or punish her by exposing her as the sharp operator he suspects that she is?

 

Since Teresa has brought along a fellow nun, played by Susan Hampshire, and she’s and economic whiz who sees through Maxwell’s schemes, his threats seem as empty as his ruses. But, like the favour she wants from him yet refuses to explain until the end, they bring some plot and conflict to what could become a verbally leaden joust between God and Mammon.

 

I’d have liked some more oddity, quirkiness and sheer unpredictability in a play whose main characters invite such treatment. Still, we do hear Calder-Marshall wonder if the Albert Memorial couldn’t be transformed into a refuge for the homeless. We do see Pennington’s mouth arc in a rictus of dismay at Gregorian chant. That’s fun.

 

 

The British Theatre Guide, 29th March 2007, Alison Vale

 

On Friday 15th April, 1988, Mother Teresa of Calcutta spent thirty-six hours in London. Much of her time was spent in a series of meetings with Robert Maxwell. He met with her in his riverside apartment, took her up in his helicopter and entertained her in his home in Oxfordshire. Other than a brief photo opportunity, no one else was present and no one knows what the unlikely bedfellows found to talk about. But when playwright Ian Curteis first read of these meetings, he says his, “dramatist’s antennae twitched”. What ensued was the creation of a beautifully imagined piece of speculative biography in which the two great personalities meet and battle out their wits, discovering a shared emotional core and striking up a bargain to their mutual benefit.

 

Anna Calder-Marshall is a triumph as Mother Teresa. She is utterly comfortable in the assumed physicality of the diminutive woman, and captures her complex charisma: her absolute humility as well as what Curteis calls her “steel within”. And seeing Mother Teresa doing a Margaret Thatcher impersonation is a gem of a moment that will net easily be forgotten. When Maxwell unleashes the merciless force of the Daily Mirror investigators, and in doing so uncovers Mother Teresa’s private struggle with a vulnerable faith, Calder-Marshall is heart-breaking. The towering strength of character and awesome humanity of Mother Teresa are her done justice in a magnificent performance, which goes far beyond a surface-deep impersonation.

 

Likewise, Michael Pennington’s Maxwell. Again, this is an awesome physical transformation. Pennington has all of Maxwell’s light-footed vastness, both physically and emotionally. He begins with all the self-interested balshiness he was renowned for:

 

“Well it’s crap! That I should ponce around being photographed with the stifling poor”; but is instantly disarmed by Mother Teresa, “Why aren’t you frightened of me?” Pennington portrays the look and feel of the man beautifully, with all his charisma and command, but allows his humanity and vulnerability to be brought to the surface in a poignant final scene.

 

Jonathan Coy gives the strongest performance of the night. Without any of the obvious ‘pull’ of the two leads, Coy plays ‘Sidekick’, Maxwell’s (fictitious) much-abused PA. He brings an understated, quiet complexity to the character, revealing little by little his affection for the man, in spite of frequently falling victim to Maxwell’s puerile temper tantrums. Years of self-effacing service have become a way of life for him: he rarely gets home, often sleeping on Maxwell’s sofa, and has all but lost his identity – even his own wife, he says, has taken to calling him ‘Sidekick’. That Mother Teresa thanks him for eventually conceding to tell her his real name id telling; as is his later indignation and sense of betrayal that ‘Sister’ (Mother Teresa’s assistant and whizzy, brandy-drinking, financial advisor, entertainingly played by Susan Hampshire) calls him by name. It was a confidence he had not expected Mother Teresa to break. He has learned to function in this role much as any nun in Mother Teresa’s order: by subjugating his own needs so that he can continue to serve. His devotion may have been to a multi-millionaire, rather than to God and the poor, but he has latched on to Maxwell’s vulnerability none the less. It is an outstanding performance.

 

 

The Stage, 5th April 2007, Jeremy Brien

 

What with recent dramatisations of the likes of Nixon/Frost interviews, reality theatre is becoming as prevalent as reality television. Now into the mix comes the bizarre 1988 London meeting between newspaper tycoon Robert ‘the bouncing Czech’ Maxwell and Mother ‘Angel of Mercy’ Teresa, which is at the heart of this entertaining new play by Ian Curteis.

 

Maxwell later proved to be an embezzler on a massive scale. However, the one pot of money he didn’t raid was the provision he make for the work of the good Mother. Just why is explained in this intriguing account of the clash of the two diverse personalities, but also of common characteristics, not least their ruthless negotiating skills. There is an intellectual slant to all this, with Curteis exploring the impact on Maxwell of his parents’ death in the Nazi gas chambers and Mother Teresa’s own lifelong crisis of faith. This is leavened, however, with lighter moments, mainly at Maxwell’s expense, but also including a couple of splendid Margaret Thatcher jokes.

 

Portraying real larger-than-life characters is always a challenge. Anna Calder-Marshall gives quite a remarkable performance here, catching Mother Teresa’s physical frailty and inner strength to perfection. Michael Pennington battles against some awful make-up to reveal Maxwell’s vulnerability as well as his bombast. They are supported impressively by Susan Hampshire as Mother Teresa’s worldly-wise assistant and Jonathan Coy as Maxwell’s downtrodden sidekick, with rather greater affection for his boss than subsequent events showed he deserved.



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