By: Ian Curteis
Directed by: James Roose-Evans
Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton
Date: Monday 16th April 2007
This was an amazing play. Inspired by actual meetings between Robert Maxwell and Mother Theresa, it explored some possible areas they might have discussed, and the sort of negotiations that might have gone on between them. As nobody witnessed their meetings, we can’t know for certain what went on, but this play fills in the gaps very entertainingly, and shows some good insights into their characters and situations at the time.
The action is condensed into two meetings and set almost entirely in Robert Maxwell’s riverside flat in London. We see Maxwell and his assistant, called Sidekick, trying to set up the meeting. Maxwell is planning to print an encyclopaedia of world religion, and wants Mother Theresa to provide an introduction. He actually wants a number of other people’s endorsements, but can’t persuade them, so Mother Theresa will have to do.
They finally persuade her to come and visit them, after Margaret Thatcher has turned down Mother Theresa’s request for funding – apparently the homeless and destitute had perfectly adequate provision under the welfare state. They spend a few minutes tidying the place up, removing the booze to pretend Maxwell doesn’t drink, setting up Gregorian chant on the CD player, etc. Sadly, they overlook a large bottle of brandy sitting on the floor by the corner of the sofa.
The first to turn up is Sister, the nun who’s assisting Mother Theresa, and played by Susan Hampshire. Maxwell is down on one knee showing respect when she comes in, real crawler. She explains that Mother Theresa has stopped to give comfort to an old man, as she often does. When Mother Theresa does turn up, Maxwell’s more relaxed and behaving more naturally, so Mother Theresa gets to see him with his guard down.
Mother Theresa is played by Anna Calder-Marshall, a brilliant performance. She’s short, anyway, and stoops, and really gets across the idea of an old woman with strength and determination. She has that spiritual ability to focus on what she wants, and see clearly what’s going on. She’s not fooled or shocked by Maxwell or his past, and she’s prepared to sup with the devil if it will get her what she wants. A number of times, she says she has a price for helping him with the encyclopaedia, but doesn’t get round to explaining what it is till the end of the play. Meanwhile, Sister has been driving a very shrewd bargain herself for Mother Theresa’s involvement. Sister trained as a doctor for a few years, before switching to accountancy before becoming a nun. Although she radiates simplicity, and is obviously devoted to Mother Theresa, she also sees what’s going on quite clearly, and works out what Maxwell’s scam is. He’s arranged for banned items to be sent behind the Iron Curtain, and wants to get the money back out. By getting the encyclopaedia printed in Estonia, for example, he can cover up the movement of money via the banking facilities he himself provides to the Communist printers.
He, in turn, has got his journos sleuthing round about Mother Theresa, and has dug up all the allegations that have been made about her and her work over the years. He’s threatening to do a big splash in the Mirror, either about how he and she are starting a campaign to raise money for hostels in the UK, or exposing all her dubious practices. The two of them have negotiated their way round all these points, but still she hasn’t told him her price.
She’s established clearly that he’s feeling guilty about surviving the concentration camps during WWII. She tells him about how she sent four nuns to Russia after Chernobyl, to help in any way they could. They had to be sneaked in, as religious orders weren’t allowed in Russia at that time. They helped the locals as much as they could, and took on anyone rejected by the official support agencies. This meant the young and the old, especially the poor, and many of these were Jews. The locals accepted them, grateful for the work they were doing, and no one reported them to the police. Eventually, the local mayor dropped off an old prefab building with a decent roof to replace the damp cellar they were using. Mother Theresa sent more nuns to help, and now she wants Maxwell to use the goodwill he’s built up with the Communist regimes over the years, to persuade Gorbachev to acknowledge them as the first religious house permitted in the USSR. A huge step. Maxwell agrees, and a handshake seals the deal.
For the final scene, the walls lift up and away, and Maxwell walks Mother Theresa along by the river as she heads off for her plane. (Incidentally, Maxwell had ordered Sidekick to tell all sorts of porkies to get her plane delayed, as they were just getting down to the nitty-gritty. Mother Theresa just said “Tell them Mother Theresa wants it.” She may be humble, but she knows she has clout.) At the end, as she tells Maxwell he will sleep better now, and that he must go back to the village where he was born and find some of the old folk and talk with them, she starts to shoo away the birds on the Embankment, just as she did when she was a girl. And the final image is of her standing in front of lots of birds, rising up into the sky – an image she’d described to Maxwell earlier.
The last words belong to Sidekick, however, as he tells us all that Robert Maxwell died three years later, and when his financial dealings were investigated, the only funds he hadn’t plundered were those raised for Mother Theresa’s hostels.
I found this play fascinating. The two main characters were so large, and had such influence in their lifetimes, that even though this was fiction, it still felt very powerful. The key for me was Anna Calder-Marshall’s performance as Mother Theresa. She was so believable, and so centred as a character that it was hard to take my eyes off her when she was on stage. Michael Pennington did a perfectly fine job as Maxwell, but his character, although interesting, didn’t have the same power as Mother Theresa. He even admits at the end that she’s tougher than he is!
The support from Susan Hampshire and Jonathan Coy was excellent, and set up a lot of the humour. But Mother Theresa’s dry humour was wonderful to see. At one point, she and Maxwell are having a pissing contest over who had the more terrible childhood. He informs her that President Kennedy said his was the saddest story he’d ever heard. She said that the Queen had told her much the same about hers. He upped the stakes by mentioning the Pope, at which point she asked “which Pope?”. “The fat one”, was his reply, and she took the wind even more out of his sails by saying that the three Popes she had known had all found her story the saddest they’d ever heard. At this point he realises she’s teasing him, but by now he’s more relaxed with her, and knows he’s not going to impress her with his suffering.
A good play, a good production, and a decent audience made this a much better evening than last week.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me