Review: Siân Phillips by Hywel Gwynfryn
Even from the age of six Siân Phillips knew her destiny was to act. Having just seen a pantomime in the company of her grandmother she wrote an entry in her Boots diary saying ‘I am resolved to be an actress.’
Not only is the language mature for a girl of her age but there is clear determination here too, as she would prove by sleeping on the floor rather than on the bed and reducing the amount of food she ate in order to prove that she had the required mettle to face the sort of tough conditions that thespians often do.
Her talent was highly visible from an early age, as her lecturer Moelwyn Merchant attested during a lecture about Shakespeare.
‘This young Welsh girl from Gwauncaegurwen,’ he said, ‘chose to leave her safe and secure place in the land of her birth and enthusiastically embraced the major challenges of the English and international theatre scene.’
And embrace them she did, and very fully, as this lucid and highly readable Welsh language biography amply demonstrates.
We find Siân Phillips working with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter or being directed by movie luminaries such as Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.
The playwright and critic Saunders Lewis introduced her to the delights of ‘garlic, olive oil, vinaigrette, Salade Niçoise and good wine.’
Life was often a social and creative whirl. When she appeared on stage in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana, the great American playwright crossed the Atlantic especially in order to see the opening night.
Her performance was good enough to get the Daily Telegraph’s critic to suggest that even ‘If she never acts again she has proved she is a great actress.’
But she did, treading the boards on Broadway as Marlene Dietrich, playing the poisonous Livia in I Claudius or taking her Hedda Gabbler to Norway, where her performance was initially met by glacial silence, as is the habit in the country, where a pregnant pause is customary before the firecrackers of applause break out.
But her acting life was often overshadowed by her personal life, especially her tumultuous marriage to Peter O’Toole. The hard-drinking, one-man tumult of a man had charisma to match the robustness of his liver but he most often played the absentee father, away either filming or carousing, or a dizzy mix of both.
But here was a man Siân Phillips was destined to be with, from the very first time she set eyes on him, as she explained in a documentary made in 2023: ‘I didn’t think I’d like to marry him, or I must marry him; I thought: I will marry him’.
It was a wild if difficult adventure of a marriage which spanned continents. They set up home in rural Ireland and in London, too, but also adventured up the Orinoco together on a quest to encounter the Yanomami Indians, and found them too.
It is hard to compute the hundreds of thousands of lines she had to learn during an acting life that spanned eight decades, from the early appearances in chapel and eisteddfodau to plays such as the COVID-era Under Milk Wood at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank and films such as Euros Lyn’s Dream Horse.
When she appeared on the Chris Stuart Cha Cha Chat Show on BBC Wales in the nineties she recited a favourite poem of hers by an Icelandic poet, with beautifully declaimed words so arresting I committed them to memory.
Then, one night, having just seen her in National Theatre Wales’ Dirty Dogs in Swansea’s Patti Pavilion my friend Gerald and I were eating discount-stickered sandwiches and drinking beer outside, in a poor man’s version of attending Glyndebourne when who should walk towards us but Sian Phillips?
After saluting her performance that evening she hesitated before moving on, so I filled the silence by mentioning the Icelandic poem and promptly started to recite it.
By the second stanza the great actress joined in and together we went through its descriptions of a language so ancient that ‘old ladies can wind their long hair in it, and can hum and knit and make pancakes’ while Gerald watched on – gobsmacked, can of Ruddles in hand.
It was another memorable performance by Siân Phillips in a life crammed full of them.
Hywel Gwynfryn’s fine biography elegantly charts the journey of an internationally acclaimed performer whilst also demonstrating how deeply rooted in Wales she was, and remains to be, this iconic actor who recently celebrated her 90th birthday and with it a performing and personal life lived absolutely and brilliantly to the full.
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