Is Maggie Smith Britain’s greatest character actress?

Is Maggie Smith Britain's greatest character actress?

Dame Maggie Smith is to return to the London stage for the first time in 12 years this spring in A German Life – a monologue written by Christopher Hampton about Brunhilde Pomsel, Joseph Goebbels’s personal secretary.

To say that I’m delighted would be the understatement of the year – in fact all the playhouses could be closed by an unexpected outbreak of the plague from midsummer onwards and I’d probably still count 2019 as an annus mirabilis.

Though it may sound like hype to say that there’s no one like her, it’s absolutely the case: a Maggie Smith performance will be high-definition, top-to-toe vital and interesting, and will express even with the most meagre text (though I expect great things of Hampton) the multi-facetedness that has made her the foremost character actress of our times.

She is Maggie the mercurial, especially gifted at slipping into the attitudes and mindsets of those standing on the edge of things, outside the societal mainstream – but through the force of her own immanent personality she’s able to bring them “centre stage”, giving them the heft of straight down the line “leading” roles.

“I think there is an accepted way that a face should be, and I’m not like that,” she once said. You could say that none of the “great dames” of her generation with whom she stands comparison – Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Vanessa Redgrave or Diana Rigg – have possessed conventional “beauty”; but it’s Smith who has most turned that sense of not being the “accepted” face into a virtue. Dench’s aura of centredness suits both queen and everywoman; Atkins’s austerity imbues her characters with flashes of steel; Rigg’s gamine ardency has lent her a redoubtable toughness, as too has Redgrave’s. But Smith possesses a quality of self-effacement that draws you in even as it seems intent on deflecting attention – an instability, a latent “worry”, that can reap comic riches and a treasure-trove of implied tragedy, too.

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