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“Although I never knew him, Coward has had a profound influence on my life,” Maria Aitken says, and it is easy at once to see why. With her patrician good looks and posh accent, as well as her droll, understatedly wicked theatre stories, she is the spitting image of the Noël Coward aesthetic. In fact, Aitken seems to have sprung fully formed from the world of high comedy and into our own, an Anglophile Athena leaping from the head of Coward.
Aitken has starred in more of Coward’s leading roles than any other actress. Every year, she teaches a master acting class on Coward at Yale, NYU, Juilliard and The Acting Company. She has written a book on the subject: 1996’s Style: Acting in High Comedy. Just recently, she has become a Trustee of the Noël Coward Foundation, after a lifelong friendship with Graham Payn, the executor of Coward’s estate. “I was vetted by Graham,” she says. “I was in Blithe Spirit at the National Theatre, directed by Harold Pinter. It was the first Coward play I was in, and I remember everyone being very nervous about Graham coming to the preview. His word was law on whether we were really any good.” Evidently, Aitken passed the test.
Born in Dublin, Aitken’s mother comes from a long line of Anglo-Irish aristocrats, and her father, the he Canadian nephew of Newspaper magnate, Lord Beaverbrook, would later serve as a British Member of Parliament. Despite these upper-class origins, Aitken caught the theatre bug, at the auspicious age of seven. “I wrote a terribly precocious play called Havoc Among the Lovers. I wrote the best part for myself and forced my unfortunate family to be in it. We had a newspaper, my brother and I, and every year my mother would have a ‘subscriber’s day’ where some 120 people would come, whoever read the newspaper. We did my play as the entertainment. I think it ran about 12 minutes.”
In fact, she says, her mother was inches away from a life in the theatre. “When she was young there was a West End casting call and they wanted a real sort of posh girl. It came down to her and Vivien Leigh. Neither of them had done any acting. Vivien Leigh got it and it launched her career, but it might have easily been the other way around. My mother was very beautiful.”
Aitken continued to study theatre while attending Oxford University. When she was 19, Richard Burton returned to his old college with his then-wife, Elizabeth Taylor, to star together in an undergraduate production of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. “They just mucked in with us,” she says. “It was absolutely extraordinary.” As luck would have it, Aitken has now worked with three generations of the Burton dynasty, having just finished directing Kate Burton and her son Morgan Richie, in Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. “To see those blue eyes staring out at me after all those years was quite disturbing,” she says. “They actually have a terribly good relationship, unfortunately,” she says, referring to Kate and Morgan.
“Kate was very distressed by having to be mean to him in the play. It took an enormous amount of effort to get her to slap him.”
After Oxford, Aitken had an extensive acting career, including the West End premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. “Harold Prince directed me. I’d never been in a musical. He just made me able to do it, and we forged a real friendship.” She is perhaps best known, however, to American audiences for her appearance as John Cleese’s repressed wife in A Fish Called Wanda. She can also lay claim to having directed one of the most successful London-to-Broadway transfers of the past ten years, the Tony-winning adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. “I absolutely adore working on theatre in America,” she says, “and luckily America is keen enough on me to keep offering me work. I think they understand that I’m new to this, despite my advanced age, I’m still a newcomer to directing, really.”
The one true constant in Aitken’s career, however, has remained the plays of Noël Coward. In fact, as an actress, teacher and now director, it could be said that Aitken has become one of the foremost interpreters of Coward’s work. According to Aitken, playing Coward is innate. It can be taught, but most often it’s something you’re born with. “Coward has his own rather idiosyncratic punctuation. Just the collision of sounds takes you so far. I find every year when I teach, there are some students who take to it like ducks to water. You can read it like musical notation, and you can hear it in the performance immediately.”
She is particularly eager to revisit Coward’s Private Lives, which she directed at the Huntington with the same cast in 2012. The play, often regarded as Coward’s finest comedy, is a daring piece of work, according to Aitken. “It breaks every known rule of how a play should behave. Elyot and Amanda can’t live with each other and they can’t live without each other, which is the case before the play begins. If you think about it, nothing happens after the first act. The middle act is a slice of Bohemian life.” When it’s pointed out that she’s describing something that sounds more akin to a Beckett play, Aitken laughs. “I never thought of it like that, but you could say that. The focus is certainly on behavior rather than plot. It makes you consider the nature of love, in all its various forms. It’s certainly never boring.”
Part of what animates Aitken is Coward’s naughtiness. Aitken sees no resemblance between Coward and Oscar Wilde, to whom he is often compared. “I think there’s much more formality in Wilde [than in Coward]. You could do a bit to warm him up, you know? His characters don’t do erotic things, whereas Coward is rooted in something quite visceral. We had school children in Boston who came to see this production and thought they were making it up in the middle act, as if it was completely improvised.” She shakes her head emphatically. “Coward is naughty. It’s erotic. It’s scandalous. People are so puritanical nowadays, the idea that a man hits a woman creates great intakes of breath … even though she’s just whacked the crap out of him just before. There’s always a few critics who say it’s terribly funny, except for the line ‘women should be struck regularly like gongs.’ I think if it’s there, it’s there. You’ve got to go for it.” She thinks for a moment. “There’s a terrific amount of cruelty involved. Bad behavior is a sort of given in a Coward play. You have to embrace it.”
How, then, can a director help actors beat on each other like gongs while also bringing out the uncanny music of Coward’s dialogue? Aitken smiles. “It’s totally different being an actor as opposed to being a director, but I still think of that musicality, of hearing the play. It has to bounce off the page. I can’t even look at it without hearing it in my inner ear.” When it comes to James Waterston and Bianca Amato, her Elyot and Amanda in Private Lives, she spares no hyperbole: “They just spark off each other. I can’t explain it. They’re Stradivariuses.”