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May 08, 2007

When Mother Teresa met Captain Bob: The Bargain - Ian Curteis

Posted by Brendan Simms

Ian Curteis's The Bargain
directed by James Roose Evans
Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge
30th April - 5th May 2007

Richmond Theatre, Richmond-upon-Thames
7th - 12th May 2007

Theatre Royal, Windsor
14th - 19th May 2007

Transferring to the West End

The idea of an unholy alliance between diametrical opposites has always stimulated the imagination. One thinks first and foremost of the Hitler-Stalin Pact between Nazis and Communists in August 1939, which laid the ground work for the partition of Poland not long after. It found a pale echo in the meeting between the Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman and the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic at Karageorgevo in the Vojvodina in March 1991, at which a plan to carve up Bosnia was certainly discussed, if not actually agreed. Ten years ago, the ill-fated "Clarke-Redwood pact" between two unsuccessful Tory leadership contenders was more farcical than sinister. In short, the notion of a grand and usually discreditable deal between chalk and cheese continues to appeal.

In Ian Curteis's play, The Bargain, based on the famous meeting between the controversial newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell and the saintly Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the premise is given a novel twist. To be sure, both protagonists were of considerable stature, but in truth they were not evenly matched. Maxwell was a man of primarily national standing - and loathing - within Britain; Mother Teresa was very much a global figure. Curteis's Maxwell knows this, which is why he is so keen to do business with her. Moreover, unlike Hitler and Stalin, the two wielded a very different sort of power. The one was the epitome of selfless dedication to the poor, albeit pursued with steely manipulativeness; the other was pure black arts, a bully (shown by Curteis in the merciless harrying of his assistant "Sidekick"), and a megalomaniac. We have recently been reminded of all this, of course, by the BBC's much-discussed Maxwell, starring David Suchet.

Maxwell wants Mother Teresa to endorse his forthcoming Encyclopaedia of World Religions; in return he is prepared to sponsor a number of hostels for the homeless in London. Her formidable assistant, born "Mitzi" into a glamorous lifestyle which she forsook to serve the order, bargains him down. But "Mother" has a higher "price" in mind, which she will not at first reveal. Maxwell is desperate to close the deal, and in his exasperation he resorts to what he knows best: blackmail. He offers Mother the choice of two headlines: one in which he announces the new joint initiative for the homeless, and another in which his newspaper The Mirror, slams Mother's organisation for its non-existent accounting practices and its preference for spiritual over material succour of the deprived. Maxwell in effect accuses her of not being interested in life before death.

Curteis himself does not really take sides in this exchange. He gives Maxwell some effective lines, but he also takes seriously Mother's belief in the efficacy of the grace and redemption she has to offer them. Perhaps the playwright was also being constrained by the evidence. He has never been an iconoclast for the sake of it. His Falklands Play, which was long shelved by the BBC because of his refusal to include an invented scene in which Margaret Thatcher speculated on the usefulness of the war for the next general election, is evidence of that.

Mother is, in any case, unworried. Then Maxwell goes nuclear. He reveals the existence of a series of letters she wrote to her confessor outlining a long history of spiritual doubt; these have fallen into his hands via an absconding priest. Mother is crushed, because unlike all the other and familiar charges, this one goes to the heart of her credibility as a harbinger of salvation. It is a measure of Curteis's subtlety that his Mother Teresa nearly folds over an intellectual skeleton, rather than the threatened exposure of financial improprieties. On the other hand, he also shows Mother Teresa to be more human than a saint; it is very much to her credit that Maxwell could deliver the cruellest blow imaginable to her, and that she could yet come out on top.

But Maxwell too is vulnerable, both professionally and emotionally. His dealings with communist regimes in Eastern Europe form a constant backdrop to the play, and it soon becomes clear that the Encyclopaedia project is designed primarily as an elaborate form of money-laundering to transfer funds between east and west. Both Mother and Mitzi soften Maxwell up by hinting that they are wise to this game.

What they really go for, however, is Maxwell's personal Achilles heel. He is initially presented to us as a man of indomitable self-confidence, with a visceral disdain for the poor. "Sub-humans", he explodes. Mitzi responds by reminding him that the same language was used about his own people, the Jews. It is a cheap shot, and one which does not bear closer scrutiny, but it stops Maxwell in his tracks. For it soon emerges that his hatred of poverty stems from the smells and humiliations of his own upbringing in pre-war Czechoslovakia.

Probing deeper, it also becomes clear that there is an even more profound issue underlying everything - the explanation for his restlessness, his bombast and his ambition. This is Maxwell's own survivors' guilt at having escaped the Nazi holocaust which annihilated so many of his own family. It neatly echoes Mother T.'s own fear that she might have been responsible for the loss of other people's faith through her own spiritual lapses. In this way, Curteis shows both characters grappling with their greatest vulnerabilities - something otherwise very hard to pull off, when the one is so "good" and the other so "bad".

"Mother" now reveals her price. Several years before, she had sent a small party of her sisters into the Soviet Union in order to support the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This they had done very effectively, particularly with regard to the Jews among them, who were being shunned by the authorities. The mission was still there but under increasing pressure from the authorities. "Mother" says that she will agree to Maxwell's deal only if he can persuade the Soviet reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev to regularise their position, and to sanction the first official new house of worship in Russia. Curteis thus makes Maxwell's Jewishness and his eastern European links work in synergy. The result, he suggests, is another important crack in the Iron Curtain, releasing the civic and religious energies which ultimately brought down communism.

The Bargain is therefore a big play about the 1980s - it will make little sense to anybody born since the early 1970s. It is about the corporate ethos of the Thatcher era - even if the great woman herself makes only a brief and rather slighting appearance. It is about the cult of celebrity - and sanctity - and its underside. By the end, it has become an explanation for the fall of communism, and a highly plausible one. On a trip to Poland in the late summer of 1984, the author of this review saw column after column of young pilgrims making their way to honour the "Madonna of Czestochowa" (or Tschenstochau, as we call it in our family). This was not just a demonstration of popular piety, but a profound gesture of defiance against the communist regime. It was clear to me then that no government would survive such a surge for long. So "Mother" knew what she was asking for, and the "price" was paid not by Maxwell, but by the repressive communist regimes who had courted him for so long. His own comeuppance followed not long after.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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