She sits by the wall in the Lyric cafe, wearing a wide-brimmed black hat with a green band, nursing a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. She greets me with that tense, smiley look that dentists doubtless get used to. The atmosphere is too sudden for small talk. We dive into the interview. 'The whole thing has been a leap of faith for me,' she says, expressing an unusual attitude for a leading West End actress, 'in that I think Neil is
a genius, and I'll try and do whatever
he wants. However mystifying that is.'
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the new version by Bartlett, Aitken plays Ada Leverson, one of the three friends of Oscar Wilde, who have gathered in rooms in the Savoy to read the story. 'Between the trials she had Wilde to stay,' Aitken explains. 'She met him as he came out of prison and he was able to say that she was wearing exactly the right hat.' (Aitken has built a career out of delivering lines that take you by surprise.) Is that the hat you're wearing? 'No, I wear this in a vain attempt to feel more like Ada Leverson. She was obviously a very hatty person.'
Maria Aitken is not obviously a very hatty person. In 1987 she wrote a book about women travellers called A Girdle Round the Earth. She had been asked to write the captions for a picture book. 'I was so irritated by the fact that these wonderful women were just going to get captioned that I wrote a book instead.' The publisher had to get someone else to do the captions. The traveller she liked most was the anthropologist Mary Kingsley. 'Whacking hippopotami with her umbrella. I love her no-nonsense, irreligious, unsentimental way of getting through. I have a tough - what used to be called spinster - streak of intolerance.'
She's particularly intolerant, it would seem, of herself. 'Stupid of me', she says. 'Very ignorant of me.' 'I hate to admit this.' 'Rather ignoble, I'm afraid.' She has taught acting - most notably in the On Acting TV series which she co- produced - and has written a book on high comedy which will be published next year. The thought of 'high comedy' as a subject rises up like a hippo and she stabs at it. 'I can't think, currently, flapping about in an inadequate way, two days before the opening, how I had the temerity to teach anything.'
Later, she says: 'If I'm forced to define high comedy, which clearly you are nudging me towards . . .' And the reluctant definition follows. 'They're posh, not in the sense that they're lords and ladies but in the sense that they've got enough time to develop verbal skills. Language is a tool of seduction or a weapon of attack. So you have to get yourself to be as articulate and clever as them, and it's rather heady.'
Somewhere that was fairly articulate, clever and heady was Oxford in 1968. Maria Aitken was there at the same time as Diana Quick, Edwina Currie, Gyles Brandreth and Bill Clinton, whom she never met. 'No, isn't it extraordinary. I'm the only woman who . . .' she leaves the sentence unfinished and starts another. 'I had quite a raffish Oxford life, so the fact that Bill Clinton and I didn't meet each other is rather remarkable.'
Her father, Sir William, was an MP, and her brother Jonathan has just been promoted to the Cabinet. Her own politics were more a matter of male and female than left and right. 'It seems to me incredibly soon for a male backlash. It's only been going on about 10 minutes. It's absolutely cuckoo. What wimps, really. We've only flexed about three muscles.' So was feminism an exciting force at university? 'No, marijuana was an exciting force at university.' No wonder Bill Clinton and you didn't meet. 'No, my circle inhaled.' Then quickly, and magisterially, 'I speak in the past tense.'
She was not typecast for her first acting job, playing the country wench in a provincial production of Tom Jones. By her own description she had the 'incredible disadvantages' of a posh voice, an Oxford degree, an unabundant bosom and the physique of an overbred setter. When she started out as an actress, 'I assumed it would be more pleasurable than it is or I wouldn't have done it.' These days it gives her as much pain as pleasure.
Her earliest successes were in new shows (Travesties in 1974, A Little Night Music in 1975) where these incredible disadvantages didn't seem to matter. Nearly a third of her stage work since then has been in Noel Coward. There was Blithe Spirit at the National in 1976, Private Lives with Michael Jayston in 1980, Design for Living at Greenwich in 1982, Private Lives again (as star and director) in 1984, The Vortex with Rupert Everett in 1989 and most recently Hay Fever in 1992. She brings a flighty hauteur to the stage. Febrile and evanescent, Maria Aitken has done much to keep the mothballs off the inter-war tradition of high comedy.
She had one spell away from acting, when she had her own chat-show, called, yes, Private Lives, which she dismisses as not a proper job. She did it because she had a thyroid problem and couldn't act: 'My eyes were so peculiar that I couldn't express anything with them. I could listen in a glazed way to my guests but I couldn't transmit any author's message.'
She is 49 tomorrow. She has one son, Jack, from her marriage (her second) to Nigel Davenport. Her third husband is the novelist Patrick McGrath. As a single parent she tried not to work through the summer holidays, but now Jack is 21, it doesn't necessarily mean she will work more. She's always been picky. 'I'd honestly much rather work at the checkout than be in a play I don't want to do.' Really? 'Any other job would be preferable to cavorting about in public in something that you think is appalling.'
'The Picture of Dorian Gray': Lyric, Hammersmith (081-741 2311), tomorrow to 15 Oct, then touring.Reuse content