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The old-school approach to 'Educating Rita'

Play's sharp relevance surprised the director

Maria Aitken returns to the Huntington Theatre after four years to direct “Educating Rita.’’ Maria Aitken returns to the Huntington Theatre after four years to direct “Educating Rita.’’ (Serge Thomann/Wireimage)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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To most people familiar with “Educating Rita,’’ it’s the 1983 movie that comes to mind: Julie Walters as the bright, charmingly blunt British hairdresser seeking a university education, and Michael Caine as the sozzled professor and frustrated poet who is her tutor. Willy Russell wrote the screenplay, but before that he wrote the play. The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of it, directed by Maria Aitken, begins previews Friday.

Aitken, 65, was last at the Huntington in 2007, directing her London hit “The 39 Steps,’’ on its way to a two-year Broadway run. In that fast-paced comedy, four actors played more than 150 roles. This time, two actors play two roles in a single setting, the professor’s office, and the laugh lines have a more serious context: a young woman’s yearning for knowledge and her determination to put off childbearing, despite her husband’s wishes.

The British director spoke about “Educating Rita’’ after a recent rehearsal.

Q. What drew you to the play?

A. Well, I’ll tell you something. When it was suggested to me to do it, I thought, oh, well, it’s a sweet little number, but I’m not sure I really want to get engaged in it. I remembered the movie, basically. So then I actually took the trouble to read it, and thought it’s very different from the movie and infinitely superior to it.

Q. How?

A. Every time something is referred to in the film, you go there. And you see a million different interiors and exteriors. It dissipates the point, which is that this is a joust between these two people. It’s a “Pygmalion’’ story. It’s like a couple of elevators passing each other in terms of power. And it’s wonderful that [in the play] they don’t go anywhere else but that room. I was so surprised by how good the play was.

Q. I was surprised by how political it is.

A. It is. Of course, it’s Willy Russell’s own story. I mean, he was a hairdresser. He was a working-class boy. All these sort of autodidact sensations Willy Russell has experienced. Which is why there’s a real passion underneath it. It should be quite upsetting, the play, in places.

Q. What do you mean?

A. It’s not just a comedy at all. I mean, the evolution of this girl is immensely touching. It ceases to be funny, and then it sort of tidies itself up in a comedic way at the end. But you really shouldn’t sit there cackling with laughter the whole time. It should make you think a great deal about a class situation that is not absent in America, either.

Q. Tell me about that, because it’s different.

A. It’s different, but the idea that there are sort of terrible schools where people do not get educated is something that preoccupies both our countries. And the fact that this is set in the ’70s, I think our education in England is worse now than it was then. And we know that America is very preoccupied with the standard of education available at a certain level, you know: the free level.

Q. The feminist angle of the play . . .

A. Well, of course it’s a period thing. A lot of it shocks my cast.

Q. Does it? Tell me.

A. Well, the offstage husband, Denny — they consider him a complete brute. But actually, in the life of a council estate [in American terminology, a housing project], Denny is relatively restrained. He burns [Rita’s] books, and of course that carries such ballast: the idea of burning a book. But, you know, he doesn’t hit her; she never comes in with a black eye.

Q. But don’t we fear that?

A. I think we do. And when she appears with her suitcase, you wonder whether she’s actually hurt somewhere, but she’s not. And you have to remember that the pill hadn’t been around all that long, and certainly [in] working-class culture, it was very odd for a 26-year-old [who is] finished with school to be turning round demanding an education. Incomprehensible, actually.

Q. So you’ve kept the setting, the period.

A. Yes. I haven’t fiddled with this play, and I’m a great fiddler. But it all depends on the foundation of the Open University. It’s either ’74 or ’76 that it was founded, which was a remarkable thing, because it offered anybody an education. Ruefully, [Rita] says, “Degrees for dishwashers,’’ but that’s what it did provide, and people’s lives were utterly transformed by those degrees. I always think, that’s socialism. Socialism is not a bad thing. It’s just misunderstood here. But something that provides an education for those who are willing to put in the effort, for nothing, I think is a phenomenal event, and I don’t really see how there could be any grounds for disapproving of it. . . . So you think [the play is] really rooted in its time?

Q. Actually, it reminds me of women I knew then and of women I know now.

A. I’m lowering my voice, I don’t know why, but let’s face it, men are threatened by women who have more qualifications, very often. I think it’s less likely the other way around. However feminist you are, I think women have for so long accepted the idea that men may earn more or have more opportunities to get qualifications. Certainly the biological imperatives take you out of the race if you have a few children. It’s very hard combining that with any kind of career. I’ve just got my first grandson, and I watch with my jaw sagging how extraordinarily caring physically, literally my son is. But that did not exist in the time of Rita and the time of me. You know, men did not participate in that way. They really didn’t. So I rather hope Rita doesn’t choose to have a baby, at least not straightaway.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

EDUCATING RITA Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Boston University Theatre, Friday through April 10. Tickets: $25-$89; discounts for seniors, military, and ages 35 and under; student rush $15. 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org