LONDON — The lights of Shaftesbury Avenue have just come on, and Maggie Smith will soon inhabit her nightly role of Lettice Douffet, the eccentric tour guide at the heart of Peter Shaffer's new comedy, "Lettice and Lovage."
But first, the Oscar-winning actress has to get through a newspaper interview, and it's clear she would prefer being on stage--or maybe thirsty in the Mojave desert.
Every year about this time, Smith is back on the London stage in another challenging role, often surpassing her material, rarely falling from favor with the critics. Frequently, too, she is in a film doing the same.
This year is no exception. Here on the West End, she is drawing sell-out crowds to her performance as a former employee of the Tower of London's department of edged weapons. And she took the part just three weeks after finishing the filming of "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne," a film adaptation of Brian Moore's 1955 novel.
Talking in her dressing room about a film she deeply believes in, she is simultaneously gracious and guarded, clearly uncomfortable by the attention.
She may also be weary since she is on stage for nearly three hours non-stop in the current play and had only a short break after finishing "Judith Hearne."
"I felt sort of raw (after 'Judith Hearne')," she said. "I'd got so absorbed and it doesn't go away from you. I had to get on with this, which is such a different thing, but it took me a long time to get it out of my head. I'd never known that feeling before."
Smith has said she only comes alive when she is acting, and a visit with her backstage at the Globe Theatre confirms this. Considerably more restrained in person that she seems to be on stage or screen, Smith comes across as a rather ordinary woman waiting to be transformed yet again by an extraordinary part.
Douffet and Hearne offer her roles as demanding as they are different. Lettice Douffet is larger-than-life, someone who lives in her imagination, as much an extrovert as Judith Hearne is an introvert, as full of life and vitality as Hearne is without them.
As Hearne, Smith must keep audiences interested in the middle-aged piano teacher who enters a room saying things like "It's only me," and who mistakenly believes that her landlady's brother, a widower played by Bob Hoskins, is eager to marry her. Audiences must somehow care about her continuing battles against drinking, loneliness and a loss of faith.
Contrast the resourceless Judith Hearne with flamboyant tour guide Lettice Douffet.
So little truly happened at Fustian House, the stately house which employed her, that Douffet continually embellished her tales to keep tourists interested. Her patter is filled with references to pearls from the Indian Ocean and residents who leaped stairwells at a single bound--as she puts it, "Fantasy floods in where fact leaves a vacuum"--until the day an official of the Preservation Trust happened to be on the tour.
Judith Hearne and Lettice Douffet are also women of a certain age, ladies with more past than future. Playwright Shaffer wrote "Lettice and Lovage" for Smith. And the 53-year-old actress is "eternally grateful," admitting that some of Shaffer's motivation was generated by her persistent "beefing" about the paucity of parts for older women. "There are some, but they're a bit thin on the ground. There just aren't many of them," Smith said.
"(Fellow actress) Joan Plowright and I were always going on about it, saying we better do something about the fact that we were running out of parts. You end up in the theater with the grotesques. There certainly aren't many 'King Lears' around.
"It's rather sad that they dwindle and go because it happens at a time when you just think you're getting into grips with the whole problem of acting. Not that you ever really get it sorted out, but you think you might be getting nearer to it. And then suddenly there's just not an awful lot to do."
Smith made her stage debut with the Oxford University Drama Society in 1952 and her professional debut in New York in "New Faces 1956 Revue." Her recent work has included at least one major play here each year--among them, Congreve's "The Way of the World" and Steven Poliakoff's "Coming In to Land"--as well as her continuing film work. She has been nominated for five Academy Awards and received a best actress award for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" in 1969 and a second Oscar in 1977 as best supporting actress in "California Suite."
"Judith Hearne" writer-producer Peter Nelson has called the Hearne character "a searing exploration of loneliness," and Smith thinks that exploration taps some important--and familiar--chords.
"Loneliness is a very terrible thing and I think everybody understands it," Smith said. "Even if they're not lonely now, they have at some point felt that kind of isolation. I think everybody does. A child does. We all do. So it is a feeling that people know about and maybe fear in a way."