In conversation with Dame Siân Phillips

A legendary actor visits Solihull School, reports Simon Hale.

Acting legend Dame Siân Phillips had an audience at Solihull School in raptures when she shared her favourite roles in the theatre as part of the school’s first Shakespeare Festival.

Interviewed by acclaimed stage director and former Solihull pupil Richard Digby Day in the co-educational school’s Bushell Hall, the glamorous 90-year-old surprised pupils, staff and guests by declaring that an elderly Juliet in her eighties was the part she most enjoyed playing.

“The production (of Romeo & Juliet) was set in an old people’s home and featured the whole play as written by Shakespeare,” she said. “Everything I had ever thought or read about Shakespeare came together for me and I was able to apply what I felt.”

With Shakespeare as the bedrock of her early career, the Welsh actress was also acclaimed for the title roles in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan before going on to play Julia in The Duchess of Malfi at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1960 and then Miss Havisham in Great Expectations with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford in 2005.

She remains best known, however, for her BAFTA-award winning performance as the murderous Livia in the 1976 BBC TV series, I, Claudius, in which her then-husband Peter O’Toole played Tiberius. But it was as a singer and performer that she enjoyed one of her biggest successes.
Able to work as she wished after her marriage to O’Toole which brought a prolonged period of domesticity ended, Siân received what she said was her best script in 1980 for the Rodgers & Hart musical Pal Joey. “I told the director I loved this show, but I had never sung or danced on stage – as stage actors just did not like to take such risks in those days.

“But he told me that if I started having lessons and practicing now, in six weeks’ time I would be fine. Amazingly, after the first time I sang to the audience, I stopped the show with all the applause – and Pal Joey went on to run for a year. It was one of my greatest joys to do.”

Pal Joey, in which Siân played rich widow Vera, also provided her with the best clothes she had ever worn on stage: “There were seven outfits that were simply breathtaking. We do get wonderful clothes to wear on stage, but these were top of the range couture. I did however have to go on a starvation diet – I was quite slim – as the director said I should not wear anything under these clothes apart from a pair of pants because anything else would show.”

In going on to discuss the state of classical acting, Siân and her interviewer both lamented a “drop off” in the speaking of the language compared with the 60 and 70s. They agreed that an actor cannot truly call oneself one until they have learned the craft of acting, especially in the speaking of classical texts. Only then can acting occasionally rise to an art.

Advising students thinking of going into such an insecure profession as acting, they warned you should do so “only if there is nothing else in the world you want to do.” Siân said unlike the profession of her day, technology and social media have helped to fuel a terrible cult of celebrity that is massive and places a heavy weight on you.

“Richard Burton once told me that it takes ten years of solid leading part acting to make yourself a name. Now you can make a name in 24 hours with no knowledge and no training. What happens after that I do not know. But I still think a huge talent will still get through.”

Prior to their conversation, Siân Phillips and Richard Digby Day were among the audience for a concert of Shakespeare-themed music by a quartet from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a recital of a poem exploring Shakespeare’s humanity Behind the Quill by Solihull School’s Poet Laureate Amber Huckfield, and Shakespeare readings by the actor Tom McMillan.

The enthralling evening followed a packed day of talks by leading Shakespeare academics, a preview of a forthcoming performance of Romeo & Juliet by Solihull School Dance Company, a workshop rehearsal of The Two Gentlemen of Verona directed by Richard Digby Day, and a performance of Titus Andronicus by players from Jesus College, Oxford’s Shakespeare Project.

Siân Phillips’s autobiography, Private Faces & Public Places, published by Spectre, is now available in paperback.

Pics – John Swannell (this page), Lucie Ray-Barett (front).