A real Maggie Smith play. What is a Maggie Smith play? Whether by Coward or Harwood — or Shakespeare — it is a play about a comic heroine surprised by her own fine instincts into revealing her secret vulnerability, with either happy or disastrous results, depending on arbitrary events (Harwood) or, more likely, an ethical mandate built into the fabric of the play itself (Coward, Shakespeare). What’s that you say? No ethical mandate in Coward? Read Private Lives again, please.
Now, Harwood is really not so good as Coward at one-liners. He is interested in serious predicaments, specifically the plight of the vulnerable in a hostile, treacherous world. This play is about a woman who loves not wisely but too well. Her fondness, her desperate need to transcend loneliness, ironically traps her into compromise. The Maggie Smith character is Nadia, a career interpreter at the Foreign Office, who is compromised by a Russian interpreter on a mission to London. She had an affair with him before, in New York. Now he wants to defect, pretends love for her, and then, when he gets caught in it, pretends he was just putting her on in order to bed her again. A sordid story, and it finally isn’t very interesting to know just how far his lust for her might have edged on love. Probably not far, but it doesn’t matter. He saves himself with the old story of its being a man’s world, leaving a woman in emotional and professional shambles at the end.
What is remarkable is the fact that Harwood stretches a full-length play out of material more suitable for a sort-of-Chekhovian short story. He does it partly with the one liners, and partly with the spurious character of Nadia’s ninety-three year old aunt (or whatever she is), an ex-patriot from old Russia who hates the Soviets and, well, who hates the Soviets. Doreen Mantle, who does very well with a good old woman’s role (witness the old woman in The French Lieutenant’s Woman), does what she can with this thin, superficial cliché of a part. John Moffatt, the Foreign Office Under Secretary, Pointer, who gets wind of the affair, is serviceable, but again, he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Edward Fox is just plain weird as the Russian interpreter Viktor. His Russian-accented English was never, I think, actually heard on sea or land; it smacks of a combination of American cowboy films as populated by Russian actors speaking British English: vodka and Gatorade. He has a distracting habit of over-flexing the knees and shuffling, hard-footed, along the rug to convince Nadia of the strength of his passion and us of the depth of his duplicity. It is only knee-deep, as it happens; he has evidently pulled this off, to what ought to be universal incredulity, many times before. How could the Maggie Smith character fall in love with that skunk? That is the question the made-for-television sage Sophia asks, in the middle and again at the end. And it is the question we ask, too, of Mr. Harwood. A more skillful use of easy laughter might have been to trap us, the audience, as well, into taking some of the rap. As it is, our sympathy for Nadia has the edge taken off of it by the unlikelihood of her fatal fascination with this poor excuse for a man. In this case, despite her comic assertion that life is not sad, but tragic, the fact is that it is a farce (in the non-theatrical sense of a much belabored term).
Maggie Smith’s performance is, of course, what saves the evening, to the extent salvation is available. She really does have marvellous comic timing. Anyone who, as I did, had the happy chance to see her in repertory some years back as Hedda Gabler and as Mrs Sullen (in The Beaux’ Stratagem) — two unhappily married women in two vastly different plays — knows what Maggie Smith can get out of a good role. And as Hedda she found out some new things about Ibsen’s sense of humor as well, in the process.
These are also Maggie Smith roles, if not Maggie Smith plays. She has the wonderful talent of making us laugh at her and then feeling sorry for having done so. That is, a kind of after-effect pathos emerges that inhabits even her most brittle, shimmering creations, the way a self-conscious woman in a ball gown can be striking on entrance and yet incongruously out of character on closer inspection. It is that funny (in the sense of odd) thing she does with timing that, like a breath caught in a split-second of hesitation, fixes an expression, an emotion, in a sort of permanence. When successful, it is a very effective technique, living as it does just shy of the threshold of our consciousness (you have to be watching for it to glimpse it). It isn’t quite a pause; it’s a bit like taking time with something that, if glossed over too quickly, will be lost. It is wonderfully self-conscious, self-referential; self abdicating, almost, since it says, “I’m determined not to be solemn about this, but I do want you to know I’m serious.” In that split-second’s gap are the makings of expert comedy. Even when she is desolate she is comic in this way, and in that comic pathos lies the secret of her success in live theatre, and the reason for her sometimes lackluster image on screen. She needs a live audience for timing that depends so entirely on a felt reaction.
Oh, Ronald Harwood, you are so lucky to have her at the center of your play. And you don’t deserve it, mere stage carpenter that you are. But, then, were we all to get what we deserve, which of us should ’scape whipping?