Director Maria Aitken: Inspired Interpreter of Coward's Comedy

"The comedy of manners is not prancing about with fans or being brittle," Maria Aitken explains. "Things don't work unless you warm them up from underneath. I've been in lots of serious plays, but I don't see it as my forte. Comedy is a very serious matter." Aitken is sought as a teacher and director for her expertise in high comedies such as Noël Coward's Private Lives. "High comedies are not bloodless, refined, wordy plays," says Aitken during a session of the BBC Acting Series. "Their themes are sex, money, and social advancement. They contain a splendid contradiction: wit and elegance at the service of man's basest drives."

Maria Aitken learned "on the boards." Though she was a student at the renowned Oxford University, she spent more time on professional stages than in the classroom. Her first professional acting credit was while she was still in school in the mid-sixties. Aitken was cast in a small role in Richard Burton's production of Faustus. She hid in the theatre and watched Burton and his wife Elizabeth Taylor as they rehearsed. American audiences may also remember Aitken from the 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda. Over the course of her acting career, Aitken has played more Coward leading women on West End stages than any other actress to date including Blithe Spirit (1976),Private Lives (1980), Design for Living (1982), Private Lives again (1984, star and director), The Vortex with Rupert Everett (1989), and Hay Fever (1992). "My career has been very predicated on Noël Coward," Aitken admits. "I've played all his great roles, either at the National or in the West End."

After many years of acting, Aitken began directing when she was forced to turn down a role in Giles Cooper's play Happy Families only to be asked to helm the production. Huntington audiences have seen her work in popular productions ofEducating Rita last season, and Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, which had its American premiere at the Huntington and then went on to play three years on and off Broadway. She now prefers directing to acting, but continued to do both for a time. Aitken has worked with more than fifty directors over the course of her career and tends to "pinch the good things from some of those [she] liked."

Her skill as an interpreter of Noël Coward comes from the integration of her experiences as an actress with her intuition and instincts as a director. Aitken distills the intricacies of Coward to find the wit. She believes an actor must understand a character's thought process completely to fully employ the linguistic devices of high comedy and execute it seemingly effortlessly. "The effort involved must be imperceptible," Aitken writes in her book Style: Acting in High Comedy. "One has to acquire the cleverness, the articulacy, the febrility of the characters — and then make the whole laborious exercise seem like swimming through silk."

The characters in Private Lives may seem distant to the modern American, but Maria Aitken disagrees. "The whole reason that high comedy has proved such a durable form is that it reveals the truth about human nature, warts and all, but does so with glorious pyro-technics of language and behavior. It uses society's most sophisticated social accomplishments, intellect and wit, to mock society itself; the glitter reveals the grubbiness."

— Vicki Schairer

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