Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Sian Phillips - Everlasting Love

Age becomes Sian Phillips. The Welsh-born actress who began her career 
playing Masha in Three Sisters, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Shaw's Saint 
Joan is about to arrive in Glasgow at the end of a long tour with 
high-octane physical theatre company Frantic Assembly. The company will 
be presenting Lovesong, a play by writer of Margaret Thatcher biopic 
The Iron Lady and Steve McQueen's sex-addiction flick, Shame, Abi 
Morgan. In Lovesong, Phillips plays a woman working her way through her 
entire forty years of marriage, 'from love's first fever to it's 
plague', as Dylan Thomas wrote.

More noted for her classical roles, two years ago Phillips finally got 
to play Juliet in Tom Morris' radical take on Shakespeare's 
star-crossed lovers tragedy. She's also recently shared a stage with 
singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright after appearing on his 2007 album, 
Release The Stars. Sian Phillips is seventy-eight years old.

Sat in her car outside the BBC in London where she's just done an 
interview to tie in with Lovesong's sell-out run at the Lyric 
Hammersmith, Phillips comes across as someone far younger. This might 
have something to do with Lovesong itself.

“It's about a long-term relationship and what it's like when it comes 
to an end,” says the thrice-married Phillips of Lovesong, which has 
older and younger actors playing the same couple at different stages of 
their lives. “They're all onstage at the same time, doing different 
things. The younger couple go through four decades, while the older 
pair go through the final four days together. It's very sad in a way, 
but there's so much going on. There's music and video, and because it's 
physical theatre, inbetween each scene we have to do what they call an 

Such narrative tics fits in perfectly with Frantic Assembly's back 
catalogue, which has attracted young audiences to the company's work 
ever since it was formed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett in 1994 to 
combine choreographed movement with text to make a relentless but still 
attractive form of total theatre. Given that she trained at RADA 
alongside Glenda Jackson and Diana Rigg, this doesn't sound an entirely 
natural fit for Phillips. But then, neither did her move into musicals 
when she starred in Pal Joey at the relatively late age of forty.

“I've never been in a show like this,” Phillips admits, her Welsh burr 
coming more to the fore the more enthusiastic she gets. “Musicals are 
different again, because I'm not a dancer, but this ids very different. 
It's more athletic, and I have to work really hard. When Scott and 
Steven asked me to do Lovesong, I asked if I could go and work with 
them for a couple of weeks, just to make sure I was up to it. I was 
exhausted, but I'm always up for doing something different. I wouldn't 
have missed it for the world.”

Phillips first became aware of Frantic Assembly when she went to see 
Tiny Dynamite a decade ago. A co-production with Paines Plough, then 
being run by future National Theatre of Scotland artistic director 
Vicky Featherstone, Tiny Dynamite was also scripted by Abi Morgan, and 
looked at the electricity between people in a very different kind of 
love affair.

“I was knocked out,” Phillips gushes. “I didn't understand any of it, 
but I loved every minute of it.”

Such a willingness to embrace the unknown has been with Phillips since 
a frighteningly young age, ever since her mother taught her to recite 
and put her on the stage for the first time aged four. While Welsh was 
her first language, Phillips picked up English off the radio, and was 
picked up by the BBC aged eleven to play a ginger cat for Radio Wales. 
The same year, Phillips won the National Eisteddfod competition, having 
realised aged six that this what she wanted to do for the rest of her 
life. She made her first British television appearance aged seventeen, 
and became a TV newsreader for BBC Wales while still a student in 
Cardiff. She later received a great deal of attention from Hollywood 
studios while at RADA, but declined all offers for the immediate allure 
of the stage.

With her sonorous vocal tones a major asset, Phillips joined the the 
Royal Shakespeare Company, a company she returned to in 2005 when she 
appeared in Dickens' Great Expectations in Stratford. Inbetween have 
been BAFTA-winning turns in the BBC production of I Claudius, a role in 
the film version of Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood with Richard Burton, 
and twenty years in her second marriage to Peter O'Toole before 
marrying actor Robin Sachs, seventeen years her junior. Musical theatre 
opened up a whole new world for Phillips, and she looks on Pal Joey as 
one of her proudest moments.

All of this and a whole lot more besides is in Phillips' two volumes of 
autobiography, Private Places and Public Faces, published in 1999 and 
2001. A third volume, however, is unlikely, and she is coy about her 
changing fortunes, when “life changed, circumstances changed. Things 
became very hard, but I struggled through. I never thought for a minute 
that they wouldn't get better, and they did. But I don't look back. I 
can hardly remember most things I've done, and I can't be bothered 
looking through old diaries to remind me anymore.”

One thing Phillips is happy to remember is her recent performance as 
Juliet, in a version which Morris somewhat audaciously set in a care 

“I never thought I'd get to play Juliet at my age,” Phillips beams. 
“Shakespeare's what I like the most, and I've had a wonderful couple of 
years. I would've happily stayed at the RSC, but things changed, and I 
moved into the commercial sector.”

If there are any roles Phillips would kill to play, whatever the 
company, she isn't saying.

“I'm not a great picker,” she opines. “Whenever I've been given the 
choice I've usually picked bad. I'd rather let other people choose.”

For the immediate future beyond Lovesong, Phillips is set to visit 
Russia to film a documentary about her beloved Shakespeare. Then 
there's her own cabaret show, which she'll perform in London, while 
she's also set to appear in concert alongside Wainwright some more.

“I think I might do something else with Frantic as well,” says 
Phillips,. “Something quick.”

Such loyalty to Frantic Assembly has come from being so bowled over by 
the response to Lovesong, and seems to have spurred her on in her quest 
for adventure.

“The thing that amazes me the most about Lovesong is young people's 
responses to it. I can understand older people responding to a play 
about loss and death, but for young people it's an absolute marvel.”

Given what seems like her own extended youth, what advice, one wonders, 
would Phillips give to actors just starting out on their own adventure?

Oh, I don't know,” she chuckles, praising her young co-stars in 
Lovesong, Sam Cox and Leanne Rowe. “I find young actors so marvellous. 
The last thing they need off me is advice.”

Lovesong, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 7-11
The Herald, February 7th 2012


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