How can Welsh actress Siân Phillips be so in demand at age 80? The roles keep rolling in.
“There is a lot on offer,” says Phillips, in Washington to play the imperious Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. “I can’t explain it. It’s not supposed to happen that way.”
In the past few seasons Phillips has been on London’s West End in “Cabaret,” on tour through the U.K. with the National Theatre’s production of Alan Bennett’s new comedy “People,” and hoisted upside down in the new play “Lovesong” by “Iron Lady” screenwriter Abi Morgan. She’s been Juliet in a radically reimagined “Romeo and Juliet” that kept all Shakespeare’s lines but moved the setting to a retirement home.
“If any one performance justifies the experiment, it is Siân Phillips’s remarkable Juliet,” declared the review in the Guardian newspaper. “Like Judi Dench, she defies time and knows how to weight every syllable to communicate meaning.”
Last summer Phillips had a hit in Sheffield with the new musical “This Is Our Family” by Tim Firth (“Calendar Girls”), which appears to be moving to the West End next winter. Weeks before leaving England for Washington, Phillips performed her own cabaret show.
And only five days after she arrived in D.C., Phillips headed back home for the funeral of Peter O’Toole, her husband from 1959 until they testily divorced two decades later.
“I’m only just drawing breath from a very long haul,” Phillips says over a hot cup of tea on a frigid January evening.
She’s just been studying her lines in a tea shop around the corner from the STC’s Lansburgh Theatre, where “Earnest” begins performances Thursday. She was recruited for the show by director Keith Baxter, who has known Phillips since they were both teenagers in Wales. Baxter describes Phillips as an actress with “great presence and great technique,” but he also pointedly wanted a woman to play the moralizing grand dame Bracknell, interrupting the steady flow of men who have made the part a drag staple.
Brian Bedford was nominated for a Tony for his heavily upholstered Broadway turn in 2011, just as Geoffrey Rush was doing it in Melbourne. Stephen Fry will don Brack’s dresses in London later this year.
“I deplore the idea,” Baxter says by phone. “It’s a nudge-nudge stunt.”
“It is a funny feeling to be sort of rescuing it for the ladies, really,” Phillips says. As she speaks, you get a sense of her tools as an actress, from the intuitive elegance — she’s in a black blouse and an emerald scarf, blond hair fashionably swept this way and that, gold rings on her fingers — to her quick, lively replies. Her voice is remarkably musical, high as a flute one moment, then swooping down toward the range of a bassoon.
“So, I don’t know,” Phillips muses in the sweet girlish register. “I quite enjoy a challenge. Maybe it won’t work for a woman anymore.”
Then the voice drops, low and confident: “God knows it’s hard enough to do. It’s a great play. It’s like sitting in the middle of the mechanism of a very expensive clock. The construction of the sentences is harder, I think, to learn than Shakespeare, or Shaw.”
She has played plenty of both, of course, and much more in a career that has led to her being directed by the ultra-demanding Samuel Beckett in one of his own works (“Eh Joe” for BBC radio) and befriended by Tennessee Williams, who admired her in his “Night of the Iguana.”
Both of those projects were in the 1960s; in the 1950s, she left the rural Wales of her childhood to train as an actor in London. At first, work came “incredibly easily,” she recalls. “It was like falling off a log.”
The voice deepens again. “Then it all went wrong, in the most unexpected way imaginable.”
The story is better known in Britain than here, how Phillips married O’Toole just as he was about to become world famous as Lawrence of Arabia in the landmark 1962 film. O’Toole was magnetic, a genuine wild card, and Phillips chronicles their heady early times (and the grim bits, too) in her page-turning 2001 memoir, “Public Places.” Madcap hardly begins to describe it as, merely for instance, the young O’Toole and Phillips, traveling in Italy, leave Venice for Rome but wind up in Yugoslavia, agreeably functioning as ambulance drivers for locals randomly flagging them down for lifts.
“We got on so well, O’Toole and I,” Phillips says. “We really understood each other, and we had such good times.”
They were part of a glamorous generation of actors emerging as British film and theater shifted from upscale and mannered to kitchen sink and gritty. But after the marriage — Phillips’s second, and an utter “must” in 1959 in part because she was pregnant — O’Toole’s career took up all the oxygen.
“It wasn’t his fault, by any stretch,” Phillips says. “I don’t think I was the marrying kind. I just don’t think it suited me, really. I even did it again, and that was a disaster.”
Almost as soon as her divorce was finalized, she married Robin Sachs, an actor 17 years younger. “I mean, it was really stupid,” she says. “I just don’t have the knack, you know.”
Readable as “Public Places” is, she warns against taking that memoir — as opposed to its predecessor, the 1999 “Private Faces” — as gospel.
“I didn’t feel I succeeded with that book at all,” she frets, despite the book’s vivid accounts of evergreen subjects like the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton celebrity at its zenith and Rex Harrison’s genius and eccentricity, plus all that O’Toole energy and his surprisingly old-school rebukes of Phillips’s prior relationships and ongoing ambitions. “It was like holding sand in your hand,” she says. “I didn’t have the technique or the understanding to keep it together and present it in any shape that made sense. It was falling through my fingers all the time.”
“Lawrence of Arabia” launched O’Toole “into the stratosphere,” Baxter recalls. “She’d sort of given up her career to be his wife, for a while. Then she came back.”
She never had a year without work, yet her villainous appearance in the wildly successful 1976 BBC series “I, Claudius” seemed to mark a return to full view. Baxter remembers being in Key West with Williams, where he and the playwright faithfully tuned into the series, “watching to see who else Siân Phillips had murdered.”
“I kind of recovered, climbed back on the horse, got knocked off my perch – a lot,” Phillips says. “I always worked, I made enough money. I did interesting things. It was okay. But there were always difficulties.”
She needed work after the divorce (and the remarriage — her memoir does not depict the laid-back Sachs, whom she divorced in 1991, as a go-getter.) Along came “Pal Joey,” a leading part in a musical revival, albeit in a small venue. It was 1980, and Phillips, taking a musical role for the first time, looked glamorous and commanded attention in the Rodgers and Hart classic. It moved to the West End for a hearty run.
“Then suddenly, 10 or 15 years ago, I realized I had worked my way back to the situation I had imagined when I was 10 years old,” Phillips says. “I was actually living it. So I had actually gotten what I’d wanted, but it had taken me my entire life.”
A turning point was “Marlene,” a biographical drama about Marlene Dietrich that climaxed with a cabaret performance as the film star. The London hit moved to New York and earned Phillips a Tony nomination in 1999. Phillips’s voice goes high as she reflects, and as she declines to pinpoint the moment of recognition.
“It wasn’t so much the job,” she says. “It was just the life. This is what I thought of in the first place. It’s just lovely, because I’ve never been happier since I was a child.”
She seems to adore the unorthodox challenges, playing Juliet decades after that ship ought to have sailed and working with Steven Hoggett on the taxing “Lovesong,” which was produced by the movement-oriented Frantic Assembly. Hoggett, choreographer of the musical “Once,” is known here for the international tour of “Black Watch” at the STC, which featured actors popping up through the felt of a pool table. More such surprises were in store for “Lovesong.”
“I am a gymnast from way back,” Phillips says. “I do a lot of Pilates, and I exercise a lot. So I’m quite useful. But I am the age I am. So there’s a limit.”
She recalls that Hoggett gradually “turned me upside down, and he said, ‘See, you’re all right. Keep going.’ I said, ‘Oh! That’s fine.’ ”
That spirit seems to characterize Phillips. “I know that I work too much because I’m trying to catch up,” she says, of the years when she primarily defined herself as wife, not actress. But she adds, “It’s what I love doing. So to be able to just do it, and not have anyone breathing down my neck, is so wonderful.”
Moments later, the fit Phillips strides regally through the icy night, trekking half a dozen blocks to her apartment and dodging snowy patches on the sidewalk. Siân Phillips, marching on.
by Oscar Wilde. Thursday through March 2 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Tickets $20-$110. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.