Maria Aitken is back where her fans feel she belongs, the West End stage. She, however, is more ambivalent about acting, as Theatrenow discovered when she gave an interview in her dressing room before her performance as Flora Humble in Charlotte Jones' modern twist on the Hamlet story, Humble Boy.
It's been a while since you've been on the West End stage. Are you relieved to be back? "I hadn't planned to come back to the London stage at all, but a variety of factors — including an old friend insisting that I read the play, and then pursuing me to New York to insist that I play Flora — has meant I've ended up here at the Gielgud."
You lecture on theatre in the States, and you've written about it, too. How do you feel about putting this into practice eight times a week? "That's the problem, really. Eight times a week is pretty shattering, and you need a lot of discipline to keep going. It also means you only have a social life on Monday and Tuesday nights after the show, because of the need to save energy for, and recover it after, the two-show matinee days on Thursday and Saturday.
"However, I love Humble Boy, and the part I have. We've also got a marvelous company, so there's a great sense of achievement about getting through each show, in giving a good performance and doing your best for the play." Apart from the Hamlet connection, how would you describe the play? "In a word, I'd say 'Chekhovian.' This production is very funny, but it's also tough and real. It's a sort of English Chekhov, but as Chekhov meant his plays to be performed — as, essentially, comedies, but with elements of stillness and sadness."
Did you see either Diana Rigg or Felicity Kendal play Flora? "I wasn't over here for Diana, and I wasn't going to see Felicity as I wanted to come to the part completely fresh, but a friend said I'd be mad to miss it, as seeing the play onstage was the only way I'd get to see the play as a whole, so as I'd already decided more or less how I was going to play the part, I thought I'd go to see it, which I'm glad I did."
Flora is in effect Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. Have you ever played Gertrude? "Nearly! I was asked by Richard Eyre to play Gertrude in his 1989 production of Hamlet for the National, with Ian Charleston as Hamlet, but Ian was ill with AIDS by then, and looked quite drawn and old, and as Richard thought I looked too young to play Gertrude to his Hamlet, we dropped the idea. Though I acted in The Vortex, which is Coward's take on the whole Hamlet/Gertrude relationship."
You're known for playing Coward's leading ladies — you've appeared in more Coward shows in the West End than any other actress. Do you think there are any more Coward shows that are crying out to be revived? "I'm not sure that there are. Though I did see an 'undiscovered' Coward in America relatively recently called Long Island Sound. It's a relatively slight piece about an English writer — clearly representing Coward himself — in a country house party in America. It worked surprisingly well, though I'm not sure how it would transfer over here.
"Most of the characters are American, and in the States they obviously identified with those and laughed at the funny Englishman, whereas over here audiences would probably side with the Englishman and laugh at the Americans, which would give a very different energy to the play, and I'm not sure how it would work."
You clearly enjoy working in the States. "Yes, particularly the teaching side of things. I teach at Yale, Juilliard and other places. It's very rewarding. And I also enjoy directing."
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow