As the BFI prepares for its film season this December dedicated to celebrating the colossal talent that is Dame Maggie Smith, we take a look at the Olivier Award winner’s career on stage.
There are few people who can pull off name dropping Sir Laurence Olivier, but Dame Maggie Smith takes a place in that small, elite category who absolutely can. Collecting her Olivier Award in 2010, presented to the theatrical Dame to celebrate her incredible career on the stage, the actor told a room full of esteemed colleagues: “I’ve been nominated a few times and the fact that I never won until now I always thought was Larry’s revenge.”
It was a rare glimpse into Smith’s warmth and that dry wit so often seen on screen. While she is a household name – not least for her show-stopping performance as the gloriously cutting Dowager Countess of Grantham – the star rarely gives interviews and, undoubtedly adding to the pure sense of unpretentious class Smith oozes, belongs to a prestigious group of Britain’s most talented actors who have never courted fame.
Of course, with roles in everything from the world-conquering Harry Potter franchise and arguably television’s most popular period drama ever, Downton Abbey, fame can barely be avoided for Smith. With recent stage appearances few and far between, however, fans of her extensive screen credits may be surprised to know that it was in fact on the stage that her career began. Playwright and Smith’s regular collaborator over the years Peter Shaffer put it perfectly when he said: “’She is a very good film actor, but she is essentially and wondrously a stage actor.”
Born Margaret Nathalie Smith in Ilford in 1934, she moved with her parents and twin brothers to Oxford when she was five-years-old. It was there that, after leaving school at 16, she made her acting debut at the Oxford Playhouse in 1952 under the direction of Frank Shelley. Still just a teenager, she took on the role of Viola in Twelfth Night, going on to appear in productions as varied as Cinderella to The Magistrate as part of the company. It was not long before Broadway and the West End called for the young performer and Smith’s star quickly rose.
In 1958 she earned the first of many BAFTA nominations to come for her breakthrough role in Seth Holt’s crime thriller Nowhere To Go. In 1962 her first major theatre award win came in the form of an Evening Standard Award for her role in Shaffer’s plays The Private Ear and The Public Eye.
Already hugely successful, the actor joined Olivier’s legendary National Theatre in 1963 alongside a line-up of esteemed fellow actors. This included fellow Olivier Award winner Derek Jacobi who later paid Smith the ultimate compliment, saying of her rare talent: “Being on stage with someone like Maggie Smith, who thinks at the speed of lightning . . . that’s a lesson in itself. Unless you keep up, you are lost.”
Her time with the company saw her play one of Shakespeare’s most iconic female roles, Desdemona, opposite Olivier himself (pictured) as Othello. This is just one of the stage performances that will be shown as part of December’s BFI season; a rare opportunity to watch the pair together.
While film roles in everything from Suddenly Last Summer to Tea With Mussolini, Ladies In Lavender to A Room With A View, screen appearances may now dominate her credits, but Smith’s stage appearances are steadily dotted throughout and the list of theatrical royalty she has worked with over the decades is astounding.
From appearing opposite her late husband Robert Stephens in Much Ado About Nothing to playing one of the most famous roles of all, Hedda Gabler, in Ingmar Bergman’s production for the National Theatre and starring with Margaret Tyzack in Lettice And Lovage, it’s a CV that reads like a who’s who of theatre to rival that of even her frequent co-star Judi Dench (pictured above together in 2002’s The Breath Of Life).
Last seen on the stage in Anthony Page 2007’s production of Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, she wowed with a characteristically matter of fact, dry witted performance as the estranged mother in the piece.
Writing about the Smith’s inimitable stage presence for the BFI’s season introduction, theatre critic and biographer Michael Coveney said: “What surprised everyone, perhaps, was the vulnerability she discovered increasingly in comedy, turning on an emotional sixpence. Her Hedda Gabler at the National, or lead role in The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne on film, become as bleak and riveting as any great tragic performance. Smith has no rival as an exponent of armour-clad technique and poignant mystery.”
So, two Oscars, seven Baftas, nine Evening Standard Awards, three Golden Globes, a Tony Award and an Olivier Award to her name to date – and that’s just for starters – it is with bated breath that we wait to see whether Smith will grace the London stage again. Until then, you’ll find us gorging on the BFI’s incredible offering of films that prove her to be one of the greatest actors of our time.
“I wanted to be a serious actress, but of course that didn’t really happen,” Smith once said. In every sense, we beg to differ.
Official London Theatre is an official partner of the BFI Maggie Smith season. Find full listings here.