Theater News

Siân Phillips: A Woman for All Seasons

SIÂN PHILLIPS is falling in love again at the FireBird Café; Leslie (Hoban) Blake profiles a woman for all seasons.

The fabulous Siân Phillips has created a number of indelible characterizations since her British stage career began in the late 1950s. The ’60s saw her first (unbilled) screen appearance in the International all-starrer The Longest Day, after which she joined then-husband Peter O’Toole and fellow-Welshman, Richard Burton in Becket, re-teaming again with O’Toole for Goodbye, Mr. Chips. But it was in the ’70s that she first flashed into the collective international psyche with her classic Roman-style, “Mommie Dearest” portrayal of Livia in I, Claudius. The ’80s saw her as both a goddess (Cassiopeia in Clash of the Titans) and a duchess (Windsor in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles). In the ’90s, she received both Olivier and Tony nominations for her rigorous bi-continental incarnation of the divine Dietrich. Still, Gen-X telly viewers might well know her best as La Femme Nikita’s trainer, Adrian.

Now, Phillips is following her Tony-nominated Marlene with her American cabaret debut at the tony FireBird Café (through June 23) in a show titled Falling in Love Again, and her unmistakably throaty tones are crystal clear via trans-atlantic cable just prior to her arrival. “After I, Claudius, I wanted to do a play, and the best script on my desk was the musical Pal Joey,” she tells me. “So I actually began to sing on stage as Vera in 1980. We started at a little Fringe theater, and then we transferred to the West End. I’ve done five musicals altogether, and they’ve all been phenomenally successful. I was one third of the cast of a show on Jacques Brel [not the Eric Blau script ] at the Donmar Warehouse. I did Gigi, directed by Alan Jay Lerner just before he died. And then I was the Countess in the National’s A Little Night Music, which ran for 14 months in rep. Marlene ran for four years all over the world, and I’ve just been touring with a full two-hour-plus concert program that has nothing to do with Marlene except for the title, “Falling in Love Again.” I sing that song and one other of hers, but not as Marlene. I tour as myself!”

The concert tour began, she explains, “by way of a happy, non-political accident in Israel. It became such a big success that I was asked to bring it into London. I’ve been touring the British Isles for months, and I haven’t even done the shorter cabaret version yet; but I’ve been asked to do cabaret for years, and this seemed the perfect opportunity. The theme of the show is love. It’s slightly autobiographical, and I’ve chosen all the material myself. I’ll chat with the audience, of course, and tell some theatrical tales about some of the real life characters I’ve played [e.g., Mrs. Simpson, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth I] and some personal stories as well, I’ll recite a Dorothy Parker poem and I’ll do the willow scene from Othello, complete with song.” The evening’s music is an eclectic mixture, ranging from Rogers and Hammerstein and Noël Coward to Amanda McBroom, Joni Mitchell and Billy Joel. In other words, Phillips offers something for everyone.

“I haven’t had much time off,” she sighs happily, noting that Volume I of her autobiography, Private Faces–which was published this spring–“is doing very well. It ends just when I meet Peter O’Toole, and Volume II begins with our marriage.” That marriage lasted 20 years and produced two O’Toole daughters, Kate (an actress in the West of Ireland) and Pat (a stage producer who also teaches theater). Readers of Volume I will learn of Phillips’ birth in Wales in 1934 and her childhood career on BBC Wales Radio alongside the likes of Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton.

Phillips has also performed in French, and will display her linguistic gifts during her stay in New York: Right after she closes at the FireBird, she’ll do a reading at the French Institute on June 26 along with her friends Lilliane Montevecchi and Edward Hibbert. “It’s a 1932 French farce called Crème de la Crème,” she says. “It’s really an extremely contemporary piece about a gay society scandalized by a straight love affair!”