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Sian Phillips: ‘Things have changed totally in theatre – for the better’

Sian Phillips. Photo: Johan Persson Sian Phillips. Photo: Johan Persson

Knowing I was going to be interviewing Sian Phillips, I dipped into her two-volume autobiography Private Faces (1999) and Public Places (2001), the first dealing with her sickly yet high-achieving childhood, family and growing up in the Black Mountains of south Wales, the second mostly with her tempestuous marriage to, and acrimonious divorce from, Peter O’Toole.

What strikes you about the O’Toole years, apart from the author’s extraordinary candour, is how such an outwardly confident, feisty and talented person, who knew from an early age what she wanted to do, allowed herself to be held back and humiliated (her own word) by O’Toole for 20 years.

Looking after him and their two daughters, Kate and Pat, as well as homes in London and Ireland, took up the bulk of her time, and prevented her, as she says, from “doing a lot of work I should have done”.

Now in her early 80s, fighting fit, ultra chic and happy to be back at the National Theatre, rehearsing Lorraine Hansberry’s rarely produced final play Les Blancs, she smiles indulgently when I bring all this up, as if she is talking about someone else. “Yes, I suppose my prime was rather sabotaged by O’Toole. It was all rather frustrating at the time. I kept working, but in a much lower key than I would otherwise have done. I went off like a rocket when I was very young, then I got blown off-course.”

Amazingly, given the sacrifice, Public Places is not in the least a bitter book, nor an act of revenge. It is instead a fair-minded, objective account of a rollercoaster marriage to a man who, quite soon after they wed, became one of the world’s most bankable film stars. In the purist sense, it was probably a self-help book in an attempt to work out her own feelings about O’Toole and the hold he had over her.

In the two and a half decades since she gave up on marriage (she was married to the actor Robin Sachs for 10 years after O’Toole), Phillips hasn’t stopped working on stage, on screen, on the airwaves, not to mention in print, though she assures me the publishing world will have a long wait for her first novel.

“When the autobiography was published, everyone said I should write a novel. So I got to work, sorting out my characters, deciding on a setting. I worked on it for about four days before I realised I didn’t have a story or a plot for these people, and that I didn’t care about any of them. So that was the end of it. I have very good recall for things and places, and I’ve always kept journals, but I don’t regard myself as a writer at all.”

Growing up, all her role models were actors: Michael Redgrave, Hugh Griffith, Wilfrid Lawson, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans. There is a telling passage in Public Places where she accepts an offer to appear in a play (Gentle Jack) simply for the chance of working with the formidable Evans, best remembered for her definitive Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. “All day at rehearsal and every night during the run, I stand and watch her and I (still) can’t see what she’s doing,” she writes. “She gets laughs and I can’t see how. I’m more enslaved by her than I could have thought possible.”

These were the days of hierarchical theatre, when inexperienced youngsters only spoke when they were spoken to. Phillips was referred to throughout by Evans, who claimed to be poor at remembering names, as “mother-of-two”, perhaps not the best basis for a working relationship.

“Things have changed totally,” says Phillips, who became a dame in January. “When I started out you were called to heel, shouted at, told to do it this way, not like that, basically expected to do what you were told by the director, no questions asked. Now the atmosphere is more casual, more relaxed, more fun. It is so much better now.”

Would she ever proffer advice to a young actor now, if invited?

“No, I’d never presume to tell a younger actor anything. I tried teaching and I was hopeless. My daughter, Pat O’Toole, teaches and she is terrific, but I was a rotten teacher. When you see somebody really good, you don’t know if it’s the training, or just that they are naturally gifted. I can’t ever tell.

“The only thing that hasn’t improved with the times is audibility, the voice, which is a great problem for a lot of younger actors. It’s funny because that was always the easiest thing to get right. Young actors seem to think it is more natural to talk quietly, more realistic, but in the theatre the trick is to be natural enough to be heard. You must be heard.”

For Sian Phillips, though physically striking, the voice always came first – rich, mellifluous, Celtic-sounding, deeper and huskier as the years went by. She won the speech and drama prize at the National Eisteddfod of Wales aged 11 in 1944, appearing with her best friend. She knew at the time it was “a significant step forward on my chosen path”. She went on to win it three times more.

Fearful that she might not be tough enough to face the rigours of a career in the theatre, Phillips began training herself to survive “a perfectly miserable life of privation” if she had to, by sleeping on her bedroom floor and eating smaller portions than usual. She observed in her memoir that she felt as if she were training to be a nun.

Her triumph at the Eisteddfod gave Phillips an entree to BBC Wales, playing child roles in radio plays, then as she got older as a continuity announcer. The acting company included, from time to time, Richard Burton and Michael Aspel. She also got to read poetry on air with Dylan Thomas. “I had to struggle not to appear as gauche and panic-stricken as I felt,” she recalls. “I was shy and everyone was always in a mad rush and forgot that I had no way of knowing the things they took for granted.”

Singled out as a future star, the 15-year-old Phillips was assessed by the great Welsh actor Hugh Griffith as being eligible for a scholarship to RADA at 16. Her parents had other ideas, insisting she put her acting ambitions on hold until after university. All through her English degree at Cardiff University, she continued working as a part-time announcer and newsreader for the BBC, as well as acting on tour with a Welsh-speaking theatre company, dashing off essays on Beowulf and the like between shows.

By the time she finally got to RADA in 1956, aged 23, Phillips was already an experienced professional with many admirers. Winning the Bancroft Prize, the school’s top acting gong, appeared to set the seal on her future. Within 18 months of graduation, she had played Saint Joan and Hedda Gabler, to some acclaim.

Falling under the spell of O’Toole more or less brought her brilliant career to a shuddering halt. It wasn’t so much that he stopped her acting (though she claims in her memoir he sapped her confidence) as that she felt eclipsed by his meteoric rise to stardom.

So the last 25 years have been spent making up for lost time, and demonstrating, unwittingly I’m sure, that age is not necessarily a drawback to the older actor who is determined to keep on working. Neither is she averse to stepping out of her comfort zone in order to broaden her professional horizons.

In recent years, she has played Shakespeare’s Juliet in Tom Morris’ radical reworking of Romeo and Juliet – renamed Juliet and Her Romeo (2010) – in which she and Michael Byrne played the star-crossed lovers in a care home, with their respective families becoming disapproving children rather than parents. Charles Spencer, reviewing it in the Telegraph, described it as “very funny and often deeply touching”.

Phillips says: “I never played Juliet as a young actress. Tall girls never got offered Juliet. So it was a surprise to be offered Juliet in my 70s. It was perfectly feasible to us and to the audience that two people in their twilight years should have these passionate feelings for each other.”

She is also extremely proud of the work she did in the affecting Lovesong (2011), a rare theatrical excursion by the TV writer Abi Morgan, produced by the physical theatre company Frantic Assembly. “They are very demanding,” says Phillips. “You have to be really, really fit to be in one of their shows. They turned me upside down and threw me across the room. Luckily I am quite fit and agile for my age. I’d say it was one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever done.”

Less physically demanding was her four years of playing Marlene Dietrich in the 1990s, a project she instigated herself after being compared to the legendary German star in a revival of the musical Pal Joey. “I’d been appearing in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, adapted by Pam Gems, who famously wrote a play about Edith Piaf, so I asked if she’d ever thought of writing about Marlene. I told her I’d love to play her, and she seemed interested. Then, three months later, she sent me the finished play.”

It is set one afternoon backstage at a theatre in Paris. Dietrich is preparing for her performance, with her young assistant and dresser in attendance, trying to summon the energy to dazzle another audience. Phillips researched the role assiduously, listening endlessly to her records and watching footage of her cabaret and concert work. “Her acting and phrasing in all her songs was just remarkable,” she says.

Reviewing the show in 1999, Ben Brantley wrote: “When Ms Phillips sings, she does indeed capture, with uncanny precision, the husky cello voice that was distinctively Dietrich’s.”

Though they never met, Phillips did see her on stage towards the end of her career, and was impressed by the “fantastic power” she exerted over the audience.


Q&A: Sian Phillips

What was your first non-theatre job? Announcer for BBC Wales.
What was your first professional theatre job? Uncle Vanya (in Welsh) for Arts Council Wales.
What is your next job? Les Blancs at the National Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That acting would get more difficult, but, at the same time, more interesting and more fun.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Michael Redgrave.
What’s your best advice for auditions? I’ve only done three auditions in my acting career, so I’m the last person to ask.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? A gardener.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? Yes, a lot, but I can’t tell you what they are.

During the run of Marlene, which Phillips performed in New York as well as London, she encountered many people who had known or worked with Dietrich. “I was overwhelmed by the personal possessions these friends and admirers wanted to give me, like her false eyelashes and her jewellery. There was a huge demand for the show. In the end I had to call a halt to it, otherwise I’d still be doing it now.”

Director Sean Mathias remembers working with Phillips on the show: “It was the role of a lifetime. She was extraordinary in it, audiences were enthralled. It was very much a collaboration, always making changes, evolving, over three or four years. When we were on tour, she’d eat a lorry driver’s breakfast. She fuels up and off she goes. She is a juggernaut and you can’t stop her.

“Our relationship over that period was very intense, almost like a marriage. I remember we had an awful fight once and she said: ‘The only person who has ever spoken to me like that was Peter O’Toole.’ It took an enormous bouquet of flowers to say sorry. We also did A Little Night Music together at the National with Judi Dench and Patricia Hodge – I called them my three divas. Sian has extraordinary stamina, she’s a great survivor. I’m always on the look-out for another joint venture. I’d love to work with her again.”

The play that brings her back to the National now, Les Blancs (1970) by Lorraine Hansberry, best known for A Raisin in the Sun, is revived by the award-winning South African director Yael Farber of Mies Julie fame.

Phillips plays an elderly Norwegian missionary, losing her sight, caught in the middle of a political upheaval in a former African colony, on the brink of independence. “I didn’t love it straight away,” says Phillips. “I had to read it three or four times before I decided to do it. It became more engrossing the more I read it. Now it’s our job to unlock what Lorraine Hansberry intended. In terms of the design, it is spectacular, an epic.”

It will be a marked contrast to playing the haughty Lady Bracknell, which she has been doing on tour for the past two years with Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis, directed by Lucy Bailey. Once again, it was a different take on a classic – in this case, The Importance of Being Earnest – the premise being that a bunch of squabbling amateur actors were still playing roles far too young for them. Writer Simon Brett provided the material to facilitate this conceit.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Phillips had been offered the role of Lady Bracknell in more conventional revivals of The Importance of Being Earnest, but had always turned it down on the basis that she was too old to play the mother of a 20-year-old ingenue. “When Nigel (Havers) told me about this version, in which everyone is far too old for their roles, it seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t let slip.”

Clearly, Phillips is happy to carry on “going from play to play”, as she puts it, while she still enjoys working and has no difficulty remembering copious amounts of dialogue. “Work is different from life,” she reflects. “I think I work rather more effectively than I live.”

CV: Sian Phillips

Born: 1933, West GlamorganTraining: Cardiff University; RADA
Landmark productions: Goodbye Mr Chips (1969), Murphy’s War (1970), Shoulder to Shoulder (1973), How Green Was My Valley (1975), I, Claudius (1976), Pal Joey (1981), Marlene (1994), A Little Night Music (1995), Juliet and Her Romeo (2010), Love Song (2011), Cabaret (2013)
Awards: BAFTA TV award for best actress for I, Claudius and How Green Was My Valley (1976), Royal Television Society award for best performance for I, Claudius (1977), BAFTA Cymru special award (2001), Created Dame Commander of the British Empire (2016)
Agent: Simon Beresford at Dalzell Beresford Ltd

Les Blancs runs at the Olivier, National Theatre, from March 22-June 2

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