Maria Aitken — first name pronounced with a long “i,” as in Mariah — looks rehearsal-casual in blue jeans and a zip-front hoodie. But she sounds as posh and funny as a Noel Coward heroine.
Her words dart and zing with such precision that you immediately understand why she was on the Royal National Theatre’s stages when the new complex opened in 1976, playing the mischievous ghost Elvira in Coward’s indestructible comedy “Blithe Spirit” (directed, believe it or not, by master of menace Harold Pinter).
“Maria Aitken is perhaps the foremost interpreter, as an actress, of Noel Coward in our time,” Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn says in a video on the troupe’s Web page, as an Aitken-directed “Private Lives” heads for the STC’s Lansburgh Theater starting Thursday.
Aitken, 68, quit acting several years ago, despite an acclaimed career on British stages. “I didn’t want to prance any more,” she says, sitting in the STC’s offices near the Navy Yard. “You can grow out of it.”
Instead, Aitken — a resident of New York and sometimes London, wife of novelist Patrick McGrath (her third marriage), mother of actor Jack Davenport (the delectably dastardly Derek on NBC’s late “Smash”) — has been directing. Her comic staging of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” for four actors has been an international hit, and now comes her production of “Private Lives,” originally done two years ago at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company.
Aitken acted in the premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” with the Royal Shakespeare Company, sang “Every Day a Little Death” in the London premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” and wrote the how-to book “Acting in High Comedy.” She also played John Cleese’s wife in the 1988 movie “A Fish Called Wanda” and directed an ambitiously cinema-driven “As You Like It” for the STC in 2009.
But Sir Noel has been a particular calling card, and as “Private Lives” began rehearsals here with nearly all her Boston cast intact, Aitken talked about her adventures in the Coward canon, which includes some of the 20th century’s most-produced and best-loved plays.
— “Blithe Spirit,” in which a newly remarried man’s late wife haunts the house. With Pinter directing, Aitken played Elvira, the merry but jealous ghost, at the National in 1976.
They were not uneasy bedfellows, Coward and Pinter. And they both used language as a decoy.
Pinter stood in front of a trestle table laden with Pouilly-Fuissé every morning, and drank it, but was stone cold sober.
Pinter hugely admired Coward. In fact, he admired him too much, I feel, because “Blithe Spirit” really does need scissors, and not a word was cut. It was interminable. Pinter really is awfully like Coward; he wouldn’t answer questions about his own work. He said, “It’s all there — just say it properly, and you’ll know what it means.”
— On acting Coward with the famous, dark Pinter “pause”:
If you take one, it has to be eloquent. I now call them “pings” — pauses with stings in them. Unless they’ve got a sting, there’s no point in having them.
— “Private Lives,” with Amanda and Elyot, a stylish divorced couple, rekindling the old spark while honeymooning with their new spouses. Aitken played Amanda on the West End in 1980.
I was in it for a year, and I fell to the ground at the end of the big fight in Act 2, and sort of collapsed because I had thyroid disease, which was so acute that it looked as if I would never come back. I thought it was my swan song when I was 33.
It was directed by Alan Strachan, who was THE director of Coward at the time. I learned a great deal about Coward from him, much more than I did from Pinter — understanding the subtext and how the language is often a counterpoint.
For example, in “Design for Living,” Gilda says, “There isn’t any mustard” — which at the time means, “When are you going to sleep with me?”
— “Design for Living,” the daring 1932 comedy about a romantic triangle between a woman and two men. Famously, Coward performed in this with the great acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. In 1982, Aitken played the woman, a decorator named Gilda.
Another Alan Strachan, and to my astonishment I found Gilda almost impossible to play. And I wasn’t very good in it, really. However, we were moved to the West End anyway, and I found her.
She’s not the engine of the play. She has a good time, but she’s very often the feed, the straight man. And she’s the emotional engine of it. She doesn’t carry the flippancy and the wit as much as the men do.
That ran about nine months, I think. Theater actors are so obsessive that repetition doesn’t bore them at all. We don’t see it as repetition. It’s profoundly different every night, especially in a comedy. The tiniest change in an audience response is something that’s avidly discussed afterward in the pub, forensically discussed. I adore long runs. Or I used to adore them.
It’s an imperfect play. It’s far too long, and it’s repetitive. It has arias that aren’t justified; they needn’t be arias. I’m hoping to direct it fairly soon, and I will cut it.
Of course it’s Coward and the Lunts having a jolly time, really, wasn’t it? And they were all entranced with each other. Actually, that is the great danger of it, that the actors have a better time than the audience.
— “The Vortex,” Coward’s scandalous 1923 play about a lusty socialite mother and her drug-addled son. Aitken and Rupert Everett played the leading roles in 1989.
That was because of this absolutely brilliant and eccentric director, primarily a designer, who was one of the triumvirate who ran the Citizens Theater in Glasgow, a very famous repertory theater. I knew he would do something thrilling with it. It was exquisitely beautiful, but it also had that transgressive thing about it – stark, slightly shocking, but frightfully elegant.
The last act is frankly melodramatic: It’s the mother and son in the bedroom, a Gertrude-Hamlet scene, really. What Philip Prowse, the director, did was to make us virtually talk simultaneously. The last act was only 15 minutes long in his hands.
When we finished and the curtain came down, there was absolute silence. And I thought, This is the worst failure I’ve ever been in. And then they erupted. This happened every night: absolutely horrified silence. So Philip was onto something.
I’m proudest of that of any play I’ve ever been in. It was such a stunning, aggressive approach to Coward. My character had virtually no redeeming features — and I adore playing villainesses anyway. I think the English do embrace that with relish.
— “Hay Fever,” a comedy about a vain family led by its matriarch, the actress Judith Bliss — a part Aitken played in 1992 at London’s Noel Coward Theatre.
My Waterloo. I got a rash of postcards from a sea of actresses, like Rosemary Harris, saying, “Watch out – it’s a bugger. It’s really difficult.” And they were right.
When Judith launches into bits from her plays, the shape of the dialogue is such that you cannot avoid melodrama. And it’s not that funny. It’s just too broad. It’s a really tricky one.
I’d love to have seen Maggie Smith do it. [Smith did, in Canada.] To my horror, she came to see me do it. I was terrified. I worship her. I think she’s, at least for the first six weeks of a run, an absolute phenomenon.
— And after six weeks?
— On this current staging of “Private Lives”:
Most good actors can read Coward like a score. Once you understand that a comma means nothing – just the collisions of sounds, the shapes of words – it tells you an awful lot about who you are, if you get it right. I find there’s a musicality attached to it that some actors just have. I would say these actors have it.
It’s so interesting: Where people were rocking with laughter when I was doing it, at “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs,” there’s sort of an intake of breath now.
But that’s the trick of the play: to seduce an audience into a sort of moral holiday, where what they normally disapprove of, they actually find funny for the evening.
By Noel Coward. Directed by Maria Aitken. May 29-July 3 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Tickets $20-$110. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org