Theare Royal, Bath
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 not 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 here 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 (fictious) 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 is 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 continue 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 Bargain" runs at the Theatre Royal Bath until 24th March, before touring to Malvern, Brighton, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Richmond and Windsor.
Reviewer: Allison Vale