ARTS / All the angles: Farce or tragedy, stage or screen - no role seems beyond Maggie Smith. Just nominated for her umpteenth Bafta award, she is about to take her handbag to Lady Bracknell

AS FATED encounters go, neither that of Stanley and Livingstone, nor Holmes and Moriarty, can compare to the imminent rendezvous between Maggie Smith and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.

For the moment, that role remains in the spectral clutch of Edith Evans. But for anyone who saw Evans and Smith sharing the stage (if that is the phrase) in the National Theatre's Hay Fever, the writing has been on the wall since 1964. If ever there was a high-comedy dragon in embryo it was Smith's Myra ('She uses sex like a shrimping net') Arundel, armed to the teeth with her fish-tail cocktail-dress and 18-inch cigarette holder in the days before anybody had heard of power-dressing. The famous mouth, contracting from a wide inviting smile to the sucked-in venom of a stoat at bay, was already in place. Here was a beautiful girl who was ready to turn herself into a horned toad with two heads if the comedy required.

The picture has recently been amplified in Michael Coveney's biography of Smith, A Bright Particular Star, which records its heroine's success in convulsing the company with her Evans impersonations; and Evans's own grim recognition, when snubs and sabotage had failed to quell the upstart, that she had met her match in 'the little Smith girl'. Since then, she has remorselessly picked off the Evans trophies - Millamant, Rosalind, Mrs Sullen, Cleopatra - with only Lady Bracknell, the crown jewel of the collection, still to go. What will she do with it? The role has not exactly been lying dormant since Evans's time. Irene Handl made her a German baroness. Judi Dench came on as Lord Bracknell's child bride, betraying a carnivorous interest in her nephew. And in Tom Holland's The Importance of Being Frank, Aunt Augusta was represented by the Marquess of Queensberry in a frock, bellowing for roast-beef sandwiches. In her time, Smith too has been taxed with female impersonation; nothing is beyond her. But, short of these excesses, there are other ways of wiping the slate clean. I recall what she said before going into Private Lives 18 years ago.

'One got into a terrible rut with Coward. Actors approach his work thinking that must be the definitive way of playing it, and that's where it's got stuck. Very clipped, very fast. If you did it like that now, I don't think anybody would know what you were talking about. You're almost dead before you start. You have to scrub it out and start from scratch.'

What she says about Coward applies equally to the Wilde of Evans and John Gielgud. Not everybody liked her performance in Private Lives, but largely because it came as such a shock to old Coward-watchers. There were Amanda and Elyot gazing out to the lights of the Riviera skyline. She passes a dreamy comment on a fairytale yacht. Then her eyes narrow to slits as she goes on with a yodelling drawl, 'I wonder who owns it.' Romance goes up in smoke and the predatory Myra Arundel takes over, all set to cruise the waterfront with her shrimping net. In her own mind she is already aboard the yacht. A pause, an adjustment of the features, a change of tone, and a Catherine wheel of comedy ignites and sparkles in the memory for ever. This is the kind of thing that has been bringing spectators to their feet for 30 years.

AT WHICH point, the comparison with Edith Evans breaks down. Evans, like others of her generation, had a monastic dedication to the stage; her career consisted of a majestic progression of classical leads, with periodic detours among the generally mediocre plays of her time. Except during the war years, she seldom played outside England. If Maggie Smith had never set foot on stage, she would remain an international star from her film work. She also has two stage identities, as an actor and as a clown. And no insular British observer can hope to sum up her career, as its central chapter took place in Canada. It was at the Festival Theatre of Stratford, Ontario, in the late Seventies that she came to grips with Cleopatra, Rosalind, Titania, Lady Macbeth and Chekhov's Masha. Without those, her story lacks a climax. All you can say is that there were no more complaints about her 'mannerisms' when she returned to the British stage in the Eighties. Bamber Gascoigne, author of her first London hit, Share My Lettuce, summed these up with the word 'akimbo'. Others went on to comment on her fluttering wrists and 'witty elbows'. She was all angles and sharp edges. If the state of anxiety could be traced on a chart, it would come out looking like Maggie Smith. And for some spectators in the Seventies, her characters had become submerged under a frantic bundle of signals. Probably thanks to her Stratford director, Robin Phillips, she never again got her lines crossed between clowning and acting. When, as Peter Shaffer's Lettice, her long arms snaked out of a shapeless cardigan to perform slithering arabesques, it was strictly to evoke the gory past of Fustian Hall, not (as might once have happened) to stir farcical echoes of Lady Macbeth.

On the English stage, with the exception of an early Desdemona to Olivier's Othello, the tragic peaks are missing. What appears in their place, alongside an incomparable sequence of high-comedy heroines, is a line of wounded, thin-skinned victims, stretching from a Hedda Gabler nauseated at her own pregnancy, in Ingmar Bergman's 1970 version, to the spinster protagonist of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and the alcoholically desperate vicar's wife in Alan Bennett's Bed among the Lentils - performances which, in Pauline Kael's celebrated phrase, 'raise anxiety to an art form'.

Anxiety about what? Coveney's book supplies one possible source in its account of a stifling lower-middle-class upbringing by a grim Scottish mother who burnt letters addressed to her daughter, and a father who administered regular beatings. The picture takes shape of an insecure, mistrustful figure holding the dangerous world at bay; but who blossoms into fearless self-confidence, technical mastery, and (when need be) competitive conquest as soon as she enters a theatre. At the only time I met her (before Private Lives), I had the impression that she was cursing herself for having agreed to the interview. Probably I was asking silly questions. Certainly she was giving nothing away. Whereas in performance she gives herself away all the time - in armfuls.

As she did on the glorious occasion of Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy in 1965, making an unexpected return to her boyfriend's flat, where the lights have fused. The one clear thing she grasps amid the benighted chaos is that the treacherous Brindsley has got another girl in. The others meanwhile have detected the arrival of a newcomer. Perhaps it's the cleaning lady. 'Is that you, Mrs Punnet?' A suffocating pause. Then Smith takes the plunge: ' 'Allo] Yaees?', and goes on to wreak her comic revenge. You first see her as a private person mutely suffering an act of betrayal; then she makes the leap into performance and plugs straight into the Life Force.

Another telling factor in that scene is its use of comedy as a weapon of virtue. Maggie Smith the clown may have struck camp with Kenneth Williams, and turned Bernard Levin's bones to water with her lascivious undertones. But as a comic actor, her talent has been on the side of self-respect, independence and justice: as Millamant laying down the conditions of marriage, Farquhar's Mrs Sullen breaking the gallantry code by fighting for her rights to divorce; or Shakespeare's Beatrice bringing the comedy to a shuddering halt with a savage shout of 'Kill Claudio'. In the only performance of hers that I have ever disliked - as the other Aunt Augusta in the film of Travels with My Aunt - she unaccountably belittled another fearlessly independent heroine into an eccentric grotesque. She has not fallen into that trap again; and in playing an out-and-out eccentric in Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage, she presented another character, like Clea in Black Comedy, who comes to life through make-believe. Judgmental acting is unpopular these days. Maggie Smith is not immune from it. But as Lettice typically illustrated, she has the astonishing ability simultaneously to inhabit a character and appraise it from outside.

Those who have tried to pin her performances down in words are apt to find themselves assembling strings of contradictory adjectives, for the good reason that human character is contradictory, and the greater the actor the greater the range of colour. Precisely because of their indestructible core, her performances can leave it far behind, like compositions so well rooted in the home tonic that they can modulate into the remotest keys. Mrs Sullen may be an early campaigner for women's rights, but that did not stop Maggie Smith from also playing her illicit sexual appetite, eyes running like zip-fasteners up and down her lover's extended leg.

There is also an extraordinary cross-over between some of her performances; the sense that with a change of circumstances, or the passage of a few years, one character could merge into another. The most recent examples are Miss Bartlett in the Merchant-Ivory film of A Room with a View, and Mabel Pettigrew in Jack Clayton's television version of Muriel Spark's Memento Mori. Both women are spinsters in their middle years, working as companions - one a genteel poor relation, compulsively apologising her way into moral superiority; the other a class fake and accomplished blackmailer. From Bartlett's martyred instinct for bungling whatever little task she attempts, to Pettigrew's sanctimonious treacheries, the two are absolutely distinct; and, at the same time, sisters under the skin. A few more disappointments, you feel, and Bartlett might cease hovering round her rich acquaintances with unwanted offers of mackintosh squares and get down to a serious bit of gold-digging.

Both parts were quarried from an intimate knowledge of lower-middle-class life and a matchless ear for its arm-twisting vocal inflections. Within minutes you knew both of them inside out; and yet everything they did came as a surprise. 'Great actors like Edith Evans and Maggie Smith taught me more about approaching a text than any academic,' wrote one of her early directors, William Gaskill. Or, as Evans herself used to say, 'I am beautiful and intelligent - and I have a secret.' That is one last thing they have in common.

HER BRILLIANT CAREER

1934 Born Margaret Natalie Smith on 28 December in Ilford. Her father, a laboratory technician, moved the family to Oxford when war broke out.

1940s Began acting at Oxford High School for Girls with the encouragement of Miss Bartholomew, 'my own Jean Brodie'.

1950 Oxford Playhouse drama school: 'A pinhead I was, all eyes and teeth and average at everything'.

1952: First 'stage' appearance, as Viola on the lawns of Mansfield College, Oxford, in Twelfth Night. She became a feted Oxford revue performer: 'If you wanted success with a university show,' Ned Sherrin said later, 'you tried to get Margaret Smith in the cast.'

1956 Spotted on the Edinburgh Festival fringe. Made her professional debut in New York's New Faces revue.

1957 West End debut in another revue, Share My Lettuce, with Kenneth Williams, whose camp, nasal delivery she appeared to borrow.

1962 Won Evening Standard Best Actress Award for The Private Ear and The Public Eye.

1963 Won Variety Club Best Actress for Mary, Mary. Joined Olivier's National Theatre, playing Desdemona to Olivier's Othello. Olivier made the mistake of criticising her vowels, and she waited until he was blacked up one evening before perfectly enunciating, 'How now, brown cow'. Later the same season, she appeared in Hay Fever and declared, 'This haddock is disgusting', a line which was to become to Smith what 'A hand- bag?' was to Edith Evans.

1968 Oscar for Best Actress in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. 'Such a foolproof part, nobody could go wrong with it.'

1970 Won Evening Standard Best Actress Award for Hedda Gabler.

1972 Variety Club Award for Private Lives, which was disliked by the critics. Her co-star was husband Robert Stephens; they divorced soon after.

1976 Best Supporting Oscar for California Suite. Co-star Michael Caine: 'Maggie didn't just steal the film, she committed grand larceny'. Then, feeling that the British critics had turned against her, and attracted by the offer of great classical parts, she went to Canada's Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, where she played Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and Cleopatra for the first time. 'I don't know whether it was being in Canada, but one felt more daring.'

1977 Played Rosalind at the ambitious age of 43. Bernard Levin, who admitted to watching the performance through a veil of tears, said she spoke the epilogue 'like a chime of golden bells'.

1982 Evening Standard Best Actress Award for Edna O'Brien's Virginia.

1985 Named Bafta Best Actress for A Private Function, in which she had strong competition from Michael Palin and an incontinent pig. Won Evening Standard Best Actress again for Millamant in The Way of the World at Chichester.

1986 Bafta Best Actress for A Room with a View.

1988 The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, in which she achieved 'the essence of spinster', according to Pauline Kael, won her Bafta Best Film Actress and an Evening Standard British Film Award.

1989 Bed among the Lentils, one of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, won her the Royal Television Society award for the vicar's alcoholic wife who finds solace with an Indian grocer ('Geoffrey's bad enough, but I'm glad I wasn't married to Jesus').

1990 Took Lettice and Lovage to Broadway, where she won a Tony award. Critic Clive Barnes: 'Her acting, while deliciously larger than life, never for a second forgets the life it is larger than.' Made a Dame of the British Empire.

1993 Bafta nomination for Memento Mori. 'The more you do, the more complex you realise it is, so the more you do. But in fact you have to learn to do less - take away, take away, take away.'

'The Importance of Being Earnest' is previewing now, opens 9 March at the Aldwych (071-836 6404). There is a charity gala in aid of Crusaid on 4 March (tickets pounds 15-pounds 100). The director is Nicholas Hytner and the supporting cast includes Alex Jennings, Richard E Grant, Claire Skinner and Susannah Harker.

(Photographs omitted)

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