Closeup/Theatre

The master of Stratford

Robin Phillips does it his way. His way works

David Cobb May 30 1977
Closeup/Theatre

The master of Stratford

Robin Phillips does it his way. His way works

David Cobb May 30 1977

The master of Stratford

Closeup/Theatre

Robin Phillips does it his way. His way works

David Cobb

The card on his desk, from a member of the company, was rhetorical with hope and optimism—“Are we going to have a great season? Is the Pope Catholic?”—but Robin Phillips looked as if he were seeking the leak in life’s gas pipe with a lighted match. Pouch-eyed and ashen despite a Florida holiday, suffused with fatigue, a burnt-out Catherine wheel, he was enduring the last few days of limbo before the company returned to rehearse for Stratford Festival’s twenty-fifth season, opening June 6.

He was also enduring the press, which he tends to see as carping, fractious, and not generally up to the job either of reporting his aims or reviewing his achievements. Most of all he was enduring a letter from a small Toronto theatre company that seems to be making a subsidiary form of drama by getting on Phillips’ English nerves. Last year one of this theatre’s co-directors, in the audience, interrupted a performance of Richard Monette’s Hamlet by shouting, “Richard Monette, you’re a bullshit actor!” And now here they were again, writing to Stratford’s artistic director to offer themselves for a festival directing job: the tone was strenuously abusive—as if knowing, after last year’s display, they would not be on Stratford’s directing short list ever and might therefore be as rude as words would allow. Phillips was trying to rise above it, and finding it hard. “That’s the sort of thing one gets occasionally,” he said bleakly, and combed his hair with his fingers. “It doesn’t make one’s job any easier.”

His job is wide open for comment and even at its most adverse there’s something in Robin Phillips that almost welcomes it: it gets the juices running—and it enables him to deploy the beleaguered-Robin pose, one of many, since he can be a brilliant actor, at which he is adept. The most obvious comment is about his work load. It’s hard to realize that this is merely his third season at Stratford: in pure time it may seem no more, but in achievement— both backstage and on—it rates about a decade of anyone else’s life. To put it in perspective: by the end of this summer Phillips will have directed 14 productions in three seasons; his predecessor Jean Gascon directed 16 in seven seasons (1968-74); Gascon’s predecessor Michael Langham directed 18 in 13 shorter seasons (1955-67).

But the productions are only the most visible part of Phillips’ Stratford interest. He has had the Festival Theatre’s balcony rebuilt, directed a $ 165,000 face-lift for the Avon Theatre, a subsidiary limb that had

been slowly dying on the festival trunk, and expanded the Avon’s season—once only six weeks long—to full 22-week parity with the Festival Theatre. On top of that he decides what the women in the box-office wear, what style the programs and stationery will be, the design of this year’s festival flag, the decor of the business offices; in slack moments he has been known to dash behind the counter in the Festival Theatre’s green room and serve the coffee. Since he does all this on a rumbling ulcer, with a heart attack and a kidney excision behind him, his energy is looked on with a kind of horrified awe by the company, especially those who reveled in the more laisser-faire Gascon years. “He makes us work, Lord how he makes us work,” says

one actor. “But we daren’t say anything because he always works harder.”

In three years this has paid off in two principal ways: the company these days bristles with excitement, and that excitement is palpably rubbing off on audiences, many of whom may never have heard of Phillips nor ever care. No matter what one thinks of individual productions or interpretations, the festival crackles in a way it hasn’t done in 20 years. It means that neither players nor theatregoers know quite what to expect any more, which is all to the good. It means that the new regime has bestirred the festival from its marbled doldrums and put it squarely in third place among theatre companies in the Englishspeaking world, behind Britain’s National

and Royal Shakespeare—and in the view of some, closing fast. And it means—ironic for a man who says that “Stratford is more important than the individual”—that at 35 Robin Phillips has set his stamp and personality upon the festival more clearly than anyone since Tyrone Guthrie started it all in the tent back in 1953. Whether this is entirely a good thing is another matter.

Phillips became interested in Canada at about the time he became disinterested in Britain. Part of the disinterest was what he calls “the semaphor thing”—the entrenched habit of many British stage actors to signal their emotions, underline their readings, until productions became as mummified and predictable as any provided by the Moscow Art Theatre. “Yes, I could admire them,” he says, “but where was the spark?” Primarily an actor in the early Sixties, he started directing in earnest

in 1966—and in 1969 directed a sensational production of Chekhov’s The Seagull in a London suburb. Word quickly spread that here was a new director to watch, unfettered by custom, and a succession of highly praised productions followed—not least a modem-dress production of Two Gentlemen Of Verona for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford, England, in 1970. Peter Hall, one of the most honored and powerful theatre people in Britain, was then head of the RSC. Dropping in on a dress rehearsal to see what young Phillips was up to, Hall was appalled at what he considered Phillips’ modernistic liberties with the sacred bard. “This production,” he decreed, “must never be seen.” Assured by the front office that this was impossible, too many tickets were already sold, Hall did allow the production to be staged; but he was not happy—and the fact that it went on to become the hit of the RSC’S 1970 season could not have made him any happier. The word started getting out that Phillips was somehow commercial, not subsidized theatre; besides, the RSC had a house style and Phillips assuredly did not have it.

Two years later Phillips might have expected to head the festival at Chichester; instead it went to Keith Michell, widely known for his TV Henry VIII. So Phillips spent two seasons, at about $60 a week, running the tiny run-down Greenwich Theatre by the London docks. In short order he put it on the map, displaying for the first time the do-everything thrust he shows at Stratford; at Greenwich he even cleaned the washrooms.

But he was restless. Greenwich was too small; Chichester was out; and Peter Hall was now at the National. “I really want my own theatre,” he confided to a friend, “and I may have to emigrate to get it.” He thought of Australia. And then he thought again: years before, training at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school, he had worked with a bunch of Canadians—among them Denise Fergusson, Ed Evanko, Grant Cowan and Pat Armstrong. They’d all gone back to Canada, Phillips reasoned, and they seemed happy there . . . Well, it wouldn’t hurt. So Phillips wrote to Gascon: Got anything? Afraid not, Gascon replied. But by coincidence, at just about that time the Phillips name was being bandied about by the Stratford Festival board, then casting a wide net for Gascon’s successor. Working from lists drawn up for them by British, American and Canadian advisers, the board boiled some 25 suggested names down to a half-dozen, British and Canadian. All were invited to come and have a chat, and among them was Robin Phillips.

As Phillips remembers it: “I came, liked the place—and found the acting to be much the same tired old semaphor business that there is in England. What was the point? That’s what I wanted to get away from. So when the board asked me how I’d like this sleepy little town I replied that it wasn’t for me. But there was one woman on the board, Barbara Ivey [from London, Ontario], who suddenly started talking very passionately about what the festival needed. It had to go forward, she said, it couldn’t stand still, it couldn’t be smug. She wasn’t a great talker but I’ve dealt with boards before and I’ve never known anyone talk with such passion about a place. Barbara made me realize there was a job to be done, that should be done.”

And that he should do it. The board was bowled over by Phillips when he changed his mind. “There was no question about him,” says John Killer, past president, “it was the practicality of the man that impressed us.” The board remains bowled over to this day. Says one member: “Gascon could be a great director but he was not a planner, he didn’t have Robin’s vision or scope. Langham came to as few of our meetings as he could, Gascon came to some—but I don’t think Robin’s missed one. I’ve never met anyone more politically minded than he is. Our responsibility is to meet budgets, to plan ahead—it’s not easy for an artistic director to sign actors for a year, two years in advance, but Robin announced the 1978 season in February!

My God, he’s planned the pants right off us!”

But the Phillips appointment, late in 1973, was met by a barrage of antagonism from Canadian nationalists, none of whom shared either his or the board’s view of the Phillips indispensability. “The Stratford board has set us back 20 years,” cried Leon Major, artistic director of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre. “It’s shocking—just awful.” Says William Hutt, artistic director of Theatre London: “Robin’s reception was graceless, witless, ludicrous and cement-minded.” The fervor reached some kind of idiot peak when Phillips was slapped across the face with a surgical glove for CBC radio by commentator Don Rubin, who explained that “on behalf of John Juliani” he was challenging Phillips to a duel. Through it all—through even a hostile meeting last year with a visiting clique of international critics—Phillips behaved with more grace before the firing squads than those who so casually squeezed the triggers.

Still, the attacks have left him gun-shy, particularly about the media. And Phillips, a graphic and witty talker, is certainly capable of squeezing off a few rounds of his own. When threatened he develops a kind of siege mentality, drawing the wagons around him while he picks off his enemies with a verbal Winchester. “Had to write a nasty to the board last night,” he said one day on his way to lunch. “I don’t mind them making suggestions—but to go ahead and do something without telling me! Dear God!" His views of critics tend to vary with their views of his work. Thus he is bullish on Southam Newspapers’ Jamie Portman, who has been thoughtfully complimentary, and on British critics Kenneth Tynan and B. A. Young, who have liked what he has done in the past. I suggested Clive Barnes, retiring drama critic of The New York Times, was a sloppy writer and an indifferent critic: and this was a mistake because Barnes had been extravagant in his praise of Stratford last year. The wagons drew tighter; the ophidian eyes hooded, an eyebrow flicked upward, the mouth thinned. Rendered reckless by silence, I compounded the error by blurting, insanely, that I enjoyed much of John Simon, the trenchant New York critic who six long years ago, reviewing a Phillips production, was trenchant at his expense. “The man’s a joke,” said Phillips crisply, “a vicious joke." Above his head the thinkballoon clearly added: “Dear God, who IS this fool I have to suffer?” Lunch ended, strained.

Critics, of course, are fair game, endlessly telling artists how to use the alphabet without themselves being able to spell. More germane is Phillips’ relationship with his company, and there the unanimity of the applause (on one level) is almost deafening. William Hutt, back for his twenty-second year at the festival, has worked with every Stratford artistic director and compares them thus, with his customary resonance: “With Guthrie, the

heartbeat of a production was loud, obvious, robust and healthy. With Langham, rhythmic, predictable and safe. With Gascon it ran fast; you suspected high bloodpressure. With Phillips the heartbeat is thunderingly silent: it’s the audience’s hearts you hear beating.”

There’s no doubt that Phillips understands and deals with actors extraordinarily well, and if it’s often manipulative—well, that’s what acting’s about. “He stretched me,” says Tom Kneebone, “I am inordinately grateful.” Jackie Burroughs: “He never directs feelings—he allows you to have them for yourself.” Mia Anderson: “Robin’s way up there, at a level that I don’t want to work lower than.” Richard Monette, this year’s Romeo: “When I was here before, all the good roles went to foreigners—which is why I am getting to play Romeo at 32.” He in fact quit the company in disgust in 1968 when Romeo was given to an American who has not disturbed the theatrical pages since.

Phillips, from a working-class background, has thoroughly democratized the company. Not only are actors being broadened—he dares to give former spear-carriers meaty roles and is genuinely delighted for them when they surprise themselves; but the class structure of the company has also been broken down. Gascon was much loved for his camaraderie, his esprit; but not, on the whole, respected by younger members of the company. Marti Maraden, one of the company’s outstanding performers, was new to the company in 1974. That year she was in Pericles, which had also been staged the previous season: “Jean had directed both—and those of us who were new, he sent downstairs to watch a videotape of the production the year before. It was obvious he’d have been quite content that we learned it by heart and got on with it without him.” Gascon also gathered about him a group known sardonically—by those who were not in it—as the Royal Family. They were a mix of starry imports and longtime Stratford players: they played together, ate, drank and had secrets together. To be invited to one of their parties was enough to send an actor’s spirits soaring, just as not to be was enough to induce 24-hour 3 a.m.s of

the soul. “Under Robin,” says one actor, “you’re just not required to pay court in order to profit. Maggie Smith, Margaret Tyzack, Brian Bedford—they’re treated just the same as anyone else.” Indeed the company feels free to drop in on him—at the house he shares with Joe Mandel, founder and part owner of Stratford’s Church Restaurant, and Daphne Dare, his chief of design—at all hours: no matter who else has passed out, Phillips will still be up.

And yet. Phillips is a crossword puzzle nobody ever finishes and for all the huzzahs that are flung his way, there’s another side to the awe, and that’s fear. It is not too strong a word. Zoe Caldwell, a former member of the company most recently seen in Canada as Sarah Bernhardt on CBCTV, says that visiting the company “is like visiting a Communist country. ‘How are you?’ I say, andeveryone replies,Tm-veryhappy-and-Robin’s-a-genius.’ ’’Earlier this year, walking down a Stratford street with a member of the company, a blizzard raging, I managed to shout something about Phillips’ mastery of the festival. The actor ground to a halt, looked both ways, then husked—so low I had to strain to catch the words: “Robin is simply marvelous.” Lucky nobody overheard.

Among the festival staff—with some exceptions, notably literary manager and Maclean’s film critic Uijo Kareda, who has said he “would kill” for Phillips—the atmosphere is somewhat similar. Since he took over, about a dozen staff members from earlier regimes—some with years of experience, one with 24—have either been removed or have removed themselves. Says one: “This place needed someone to give it a goose. Robin’s done that superbly . . . But an institution also needs continuity—and there’s not much now to fall back on within the organization.” The commonest phrase used by the staff to each other is a nervous: “Have you cleared it with Robin?" Not long ago he noticed that one of them had had a haircut, and pleasantly told her so. She blushed: possible less (I thought) from his having noticed than from guilt that it was something he hadn’t cleared.

The actors fear him because he blows hot and cool. A performer who figures that today Robin understands him better than his mother may find that tomorrow Phil-

lips will pass him in the hall as if he didn’t exist. Many agree that his rehearsals are things of wonder: enjoyable, enlarging ... and sometimes ruthless. He will tell stories from his own experience, or from the private recesses of his soul, that will make actors laugh or cry: he plays them like violins. Once, in rehearsal last year, an actress wasn’t fully feeling the part so he took her aside. “Have you ever looked into the eyes of a child,” he asked her in his intently personal way, “who’s said to her mother, ‘You have deserted me?’ ” “And whoosh,” reports Phillips, “the tears started”—not surprising since the actress was recently separated and her young son was living with her husband. Another time he made two actors rehearse one three-minute segment for three hours in front of the whole company. “I wanted to call the humane society,” says Kneebone, who was watching.

Some performers may be improved, as Kneebone puts it, “by a sense of insecurity.” “I’d rather have 10 minutes of really good attention from Robin,” says Jackie Burroughs, “than an hour’s polite asking about my plans for the future.” Others not invited back this year are more readily bruised. Mia Anderson, a professional actress for 20 years, the last two of them at Stratford, has not acted since the end of last season. “Until I come to terms with what happened,” she says, “I don’t know that I’ll be able to act again.” She felt extremely close to Phillips during rehearsals last year: “Once he talked from 7 p.m. to 1

a.m. in my dressing room, though he knew others were clamoring for his time too.” During a preview she asked him, suddenly frantic: “What the hell am I to do in this scene?” She recalls his shrugged reply: “ ‘You can only play to what you’re given.’ He’s spoken to me once since that night, and that was the time he made it clear I wasn’t going to be asked back. Robin has this talent for making people feel close, you see. From my side the silence feels like abandonment. From his, I guess he’d call it the necessary ruthlessness of the captain of the ship.” Others are more terse. Says one: “I’m scared to death of him—anyone who has such absolute power is terrifying.” Marti Maraden: “He knows just how to keep actors guessing. There’s a lot of bastard in Robin, he’s very wicked.” Tom Kneebone: “He’s Genghis Khan, Marie of Romania, Frederick the Great, all in one. And Napoleon, did I say?”

Phillips has a 17-year-old daughter (whom he doesn’t see, causing him great pain) and was once engaged to Sian O’Casey, daughter of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey. Many of both sexes find Phillips instantly attractive. “He looks at the talent, male and female, like meat,” says Jackie Burroughs. “Mmmm, he thinks, I like that, I could use that. It’s flattering, it brings out your best stuff. To me Robin’s a very sexy man. And once he’s used you, that’s it, he’s on to someone else.”

Immediately important is the one ques-

tion every Stratford-watcher wonders: how long will the Phillips comet blaze through the Stratford sky? His presence this far has been electrifying, and he has more than once—with convincing fervor—said that world leadership of English-speaking theatre is up for grabs, and that Stratford should aspire to it. In the view of critic Ronald Bryden, former dramaturge at the Royal Shakespeare and now teaching drama at the University of Toronto, Phillips is “the next great director.” But will he fulfill his greatness at Stratford? True, he has a five-year contract he signed last year but it has a four-month optional “out”—thus making it worth as much as any of today’s contracts which have debased the meaning of the term. Nothing suggests he would want to stay in one place anywhere for long. Perhaps something in him distrusts his staying power, a fear that his theatrical flash is not enough. Once last year, in a momentary depression, he berated himself: “I don’t give myself enough time, it’s all tricks.”

I asked him about the five years. He laughed. “I’m certainly not going to stay here for five more years! Five years? Dear God!" Earlier he’d said that some people will always be remembered long after they’re gone—“others come in to rake the garden over and shove for a bit. I’m a shover.” The fatigue that had wrapped him was gone; the players had returned, the Catherine wheel was firing again. There was shoving to be done.cÿ