Share My Lettuce (Comedy Theatre, 1957) - Maggie Smith made her West End debut in Bamber Gascoigne’s “diversion with music” alongside Kenneth Williams. Already a comedy hit in New Faces 1956 on Broadway, Smith was instantly hailed for her vitality and superb comic timing, which made her a natural in revue. The Times said she was “a ‘find’ with the urchin gift of combining humour, sophisticated or slum-like, with a touch of tart pathos.” Having shared a lettuce with Williams, she later starred with him in the Peter Shaffer double bill, The Private Ear and The Public Eye at the Globe in 1962.
Silvia in The Recruiting Officer (Old Vic, 1963) - George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy was directed by William Gaskill at the new Laurence Olivier-led National Theatre, then based at the Old Vic. By now a West End star, Smith’s flare for comedy was put to good use, cross-dressed and wearing a cork-black moustache and knee-high black boots, which, as Punch’s reviewer said, gave her a “curious gait with a suggestion of the goose-step about it; just to see her walk across the stage is a comic treat in itself”.
Desdemona in Othello (Old Vic, 1964) - Smith was once quoted as saying: “Sadly, there are no Queen Lears”. But she was soon playing Desdemona opposite a blacked-up Olivier (a role she reprised on film and for which she received an Oscar nomination). Kenneth Tynan said her performance revealed “an ability to play serious characters whose approach to sex was affirmative and aimed at total erotic fulfillment”.
Myra Arundel in Hay Fever (Old Vic, 1964) - Smith played the vampish Myra in a landmark National Theatre revival, directed by author Noël Coward himself, making the line “This haddock is disgusting” the comic highlight of the evening. She had earlier featured in a 1960 televised version of the play, in the almost non-speaking role of Jackie Coryton, but she was always more interested in playing matriarch Judith Bliss. Smith got her chance in a 1977 Canadian production, but has so far not played Judith in the UK.
Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (Old Vic, 1965) - Although, before it opened, Smith was unhappy with the Franco Zeffirelli’s irreverent National Theatre production, Beatrice turned out to be a stellar vehicle for Smith, whose own sharp wit chimed perfectly with Shakespeare’s feisty heroine. In his biography, A Particularly Bright Star, Michael Coveney recalled that one key to Smith’s greatness in Shakespeare was “her genius for unlocking abstruse meanings with unerring perception and comic timing”. She was matched with Robert Stephens (who she married in 1967) as Benedick, in a cast featuring Albert Finney as Don Pedro and Ian McKellen as Claudio.
Hedda in Hedda Gabler (Cambridge, 1970) - Smith triumphed as the original desperate housewife in Ingmar Bergman’s West End production of Ibsen’s classic tragedy, playing opposite Stephens again (the couple divorced in 1974, and Smith later married playwright Beverley Cross). Colleagues often said Smith was unpredictable, and the danger she brought to the role made the character’s turbulent moods even more thrilling. “Powerful and stylistically beautiful” was how Irving Wardle in The Times described her Hedda.
Lettice Douffet in Lettice and Lovage (Globe & New York, 1987) - Peter Shaffer’s comedy was written with Smith in mind for the role of spinsterish historian Lettice Douffet, which she played alongside Margaret Tyzack as her friend, Miss Schoen, in Michael Blakemore’s production. Smith won a Tony Award when the play transferred to Broadway, where New York Times critic Frank Rich called her turn “the camp performance of our time”, while Blakemore declared, “Maggie is a very sharp, very intelligent, witty lady”.
A in Three Tall Women (Wyndham's, 1994) - Smith won the Variety Club and the Evening Standard Best Actress awards for her role in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an elderly woman looking back on her life and putting her affairs in order in preparation for death, starring alongside Frances de la Tour and Anastasia Hille. Directed by Anthony Page, the production was so successful it went on to a second cast; Smith stayed on, with Sara Kestelman and Samantha Bond.
Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van (Queen's, 1999) - Alan Bennett’s Miss Shepherd, a character he based on a real-life tramp who lived in a dilapidated van in his own drive for 14 years, was played to the hilt by Smith, who received an Olivier Award nomination for her quirky portrayal. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, among critics applauding her performance was Paul Taylor of the Independent who said she gave “a performance of quite brilliant formidability and pathos”.
The Breath of Life (Theatre Royal Haymarket, 2002) - Smith teamed up with another theatrical Dame, Judi Dench, starring together in David Hare’s drama as the wife and mistress of a recently deceased man. While the play itself got mixed notices, its stars won great acclaim. Of Smith’s performance, Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph said: “She is devastatingly fine…. No actor is better at defensive irony than Smith”.
The Lady from Dubuque reunites Smith with playwright Edward Albee and director Anthony Page and returns her to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where she made her last West End appearance in Hare’s 2002 play. The new production, which marks the British premiere of Albee’s rarely seen 1980 play, opens on 20 March 2007 (previews from 3 March) and continues its strictly limited season until 9 June. A version of this article appears in the March issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), out now in participating theatres. To guarantee your copy of future editions - & also get all the benefit of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now