A Blissful Vacation from Responsibility: Director Maria Aitken on the work of Noël Coward

Maria Aitken holds the record for most performances by an actress in the works of Noël Coward in London’s West End. She spoke with us about her take on Britain’s wittiest playwright as rehearsals on this new production began. 

Charles Haugland (Artistic Programs and Dramaturgy): When was the first time you worked on a play by Noël Coward? What do you remember of your initial attraction to his work?

Maria Aitken: First play was in at the deep end – it was Private Lives in the West End. I was the youngest Amanda since Gertrude Lawrence. I could hear the tune of Coward’s dialogue, and I loved the fact that despite a surface elegance, it’s all down and dirty underneath. 

Is it hard to be witty onstage? Is there a secret?

The secret is to obey Coward’s rhythms; his punctuation is very specific. Don’t pause for the little laughs, go for the big one. Listen to the other speaker. Embrace flippancy, and abandon any idea that good manners are a virtue. 

Does Coward still make you laugh? 

He does still make me laugh, in the right hands. He curdles my blood when done badly. I think my admiration for Coward increases with the years as I see what a stayer he is and how successive generations discover him and adore playing him. 

You have appeared in and directed Private Lives before. Anything new you are planning to try this time out?

The actors’ contribution is the wild card and the joy. Their take on their roles can change anything, as long as it’s for the better. I am very stimulated by this cast and looking forward enormously to rehearsals. Usually I’m rather anal about planning productions, but this time I intend to leave as much as possible to the rehearsal process. Because I already know the world of the play, it’s the performers’ contribution that will, I hope, surprise me and enliven the proceedings anew.

 You have said elsewhere that comedies like Coward’s are really about our basest desires: love, sex, and power. Do you approach the desires in the text through the language or through the subtext? 

It's a mixture. Sometimes Coward uses language as a decoy from the real intention. Sometimes the desires are naked – usually after some sparring has worn away all other tactics. The great thing is that since all human beings use tactics to get what they want, we can read them quite clearly in his characters and see when sarcasm is masking pain, for example. Playing ”the truth”" is not always a matter of being straightforward. 

Are his plays different with American actors? With American audiences? Is anything lost in translation?

Coward had a sensibility that was his own. His characters are not representative of anyone of their period (though some people started to behave like his characters after they’d seen them!). Many of his characters have no specific English background – no one in Design for Living need be English, and in Private Lives we haven’t a clue where Amanda and Elyot spring from. So it’s not so English as all that.

What is unavoidable is that his sentences require more inflection than some American dialects offer – but that can be achieved without using a British accent. And so many American actors now do perfect Brit. When it comes to embracing the behavior of Coward characters, in my experience, American actors regard it as a sort of blissful vacation from responsibility. They embrace the customs of the place and have a damn good time. So not much is lost in translation, because it’s a fantasy world anyway. 

What is the biggest assumption or misconception that audiences have about Private Lives?

I fear that many people think it’s all about cigarettes and cocktails and poncing about using a posh voice, whereas in fact the play is about love and pain and obsession and is very visceral. The fact that this is wrapped in elegance and wit makes it all the stronger. It’s a pretty perfect play.

Michael Jayston and Maria Aitken in the 1980 West End production of Private Lives


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