There’s something terribly Noel Coward about Maria Aitken. It’s not just the way this most impeccably aristocratic of actresses turned director turns a phrase as she sits in her New York apartment. Nor is it her appearance in a celebrated production of Coward’s play The Vortex at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre alongside Rupert Everett, who immortalises the time in his recently published auto-biography. Rather, as her production of The 39 Steps arrives in town, Aitken’s old-fashioned aesthete’s sensibility has put her at the centre of an artistic dynasty that’s as irresistible as her own colourful background.
Married to novelist Patrick McGrath, and with her son from her first marriage to Nigel Davenport, actor Jack Davenport, wed to fellow thesp Michelle Gomez, Sunday lunch at Chez Aitken’s sounds as la-di-da bohemian as the Bliss family’s country weekend in Coward’s play, Hay Fever (written, incidentally, a year after The Vortex in 1924). While she actually played Coward’s chief matriarch Judith Bliss in a 1992 production at London’s Albery Theatre, with Aitken, however, you get the impression it’s not just about play-acting.
“We used to call ourselves The Culture Factory at one point, with some irony,” she says. “I remember once being back in England, and Jack was lying on the sofa saying, ‘Mum, I can’t go on the Tube anymore. I’m really rather famous now.’ I told him to stop being so ridiculous, then went out to the shops, and there were all these life-size cut-outs of him everywhere from This Life. That was when I realised something had happened while I’d been away.”
Aitken, however, is more than some well-connected flibbertigibbet. Having retired from acting after playing a role-call of upper-crust types on the west end stage, The 39 Steps critical and commercial success has seen her reputation as a director soar. As a consequence, a show which began life at Kilburn’s rough and ready Tricycle Theatre before transferring to the west end is touring the globe. The day we talk, Aitkin is preparing to jet to Australia to oversee its latest transfer.
“It is,” Aitken admits, “like some mad mutating baby.”
Such a success could be down to John Buchan’s original 1915 novel of stiff-upper-lipped derring-do, though audiences are more likely to recognise its iconography from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 black-and-white big-screen version, in which hero Richard Hannay saved dear old Blighty from the Germans. Its adaptation by The National Theatre of Brent’s Patrick Barlow is played entirely by a troupe of just four actors.
“It’s a ludicrous concept,” Aitken admits. “We watched the movie till we were blue in the face, and realised that any corset that was put on this thing was a help. We then decided to do it as if it was a ratty little theatre company, with a leading man desperate to be Richard Hannay, and two old Vaudevillians trapped in their own routines.”
The show’s hit status, according to Aitken, “took us by surprise. I drifted along to the Olivier Awards in the spirit of comradeship, then, when we won, this noise came out of my mouth which I’m not sure where it came from.”
Such fruitily self-deprecatory outbursts are typical of Aitken, who may have “mentally gave up acting” ten years ago, but whose love of the theatre remains embedded in her psyche enough that “My nostrils flare when I get near one.”
Maria Aitken (her Christian name rhymes with ‘hiya’ rather than ‘m’dear’) was born in Dublin to Tory MP Sir William Aitken and his socialite wife Penelope, and was also great-niece of newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook. Such a pedigree didn’t prevent Aitkin’s own tabloid appearance in 1983 when she was arrested at Heathrow Airport for alleged drug smuggling charges which were later dropped. After that, it was her ex Tory MP brother turned perjured jailbird Jonathan Aitken who hogged the headlines.
Aitken had long preferred to concentrate on her art. The theatre, she says now, was “practically mother’s milk. I remember being taken to the ballet aged five and being intoxicated by this other world. I wrote a play when I was five as well. I was taught at home, which made me very precocious, and I gave this play the title, Havoc Among The Lovers.
It’s a title which may have been appropriate to her earliest stage appearance in the mid 1960s while still a student at Oxford. Taking a small part of a good angel in Richard Burton’s production of Faustus, Aitken hid in the auditorium so she could watch Burton act opposite his then wife Elizabeth Taylor.
“Here were the most famous lovers in the world in front of me,” Aitken remembers. “All Elizabeth Taylor did was walk across the stage and kiss Richard Burton, but it was utterly thrilling. Then,” she says, “we all went off to Rome and made a dreadful film of it.”
Years in rep led Aitken to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1974 premiere of Tom Stoppard’s play, Travesties, and leads in A Little Night Music, parts in films including A Fish Called Wanda, and, in 1988, to The Vortex.
“I was very lucky,” she says of being cast by Philip Prowse. “Philip was notoriously wayward in his attachment to actors.”
As immortalised in Everett’s auto-biography, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, The Vortex’s London run coincided with the death of Laurence Olivier. Aitken proposed a three minutes silence in the late knight’s honour during the curtain call. Everett, of course, was unable to contain a fit of the giggles.
“That’s not how I remember it,” Aitken confesses, “but it’ beautifully written. I know he has fun at my expense, and he became very tricky to live with on the Vortex, but he’s a force of life.”
The Citz’s healthy irreverence towards classic texts has clearly rubbed off on Aitken’s own work as a director. Indeed, The 39 Steps boutique format is recognisable from Giles Havergal’s equally bijou four-person version of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt.
“Giles was sweet enough not to betray a sense of déjà vu when he saw it,” Aitken says.
Aitken moved into directing accidentally after being forced to drop out of the premiere of Giles Cooper’s play, Happy Families, only to be asked to take charge of it. The show played the west end for nine months, and marked the beginning of the end for Aitken the actress.
“I have an active antipathy to appearing in public,” she says today. “I think acting stands in for Shrinkage for a lot of people. I was always very nervous, and used to get terrible stage fright, which I could then transcend onstage. Because I looked and sounded a certain way, I always played women with tremendous confidence. But I remember the first time I played someone who was shy and nervous, and wondering why I was never cast in parts like that.”
Since the move, Aitken has directed at Chichester, Oxford Playhouse and Regents Park She recently worked on a radio version of Nabokov’s Laughter In The Dark, though these days divides her time between New York and London. With McGrath an American citizen, Aitkin is currently facing up to the “gentle and provocative strife of where we’re going to live now.”
In between her own travels, Aitken has published two books. The first, 1987’s A Girdle Round The Earth, looks at the international adventures of convention-breaking women down the ages, and points to where Aitken herself draws inspiration. The second, 1996’s Style – Acting In High Comedy, is even more telling about what to expect in The 39 Steps.
“I always think I only know about three things,” she says. “But I know them pretty thoroughly.”
The 39 Steps, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, March 3-8; Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, March 18-22
The Herald, February 26th 2008