‘The Importance of Being Earnest’
Through March 2
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Lansburgh Theatre, 450
7th St. N.W.
Early in actress Siân Phillips’ long and illustrious career, trusted mentors warned her that despite a charmed start in the business, it would take many years before she got what she wanted.
“And they were absolutely right,” she explains in a small office in the Lansburgh Theatre basement. “It took me a long time to get where I am today. But of course, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
The London-based Phillips is in town to play Lady Augusta Bracknell in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” staged by her lifelong friend, Keith Baxter. Makeup done, she wears a silk print robe and matching turban. Tall and slender, she moves like a woman much younger than her 80 years. It’s two hours until curtain and she’s sharing some thoughts on the part and her career before she gets into costume.
When playing Lady Bracknell, many players take their cues from Dame Edith Evans, whose brilliantly bombastic take on the society-worshipping Bracknell was the highlight of the 1952 film version. Not Phillips.
“Actually, I approach the part as if it were written last week. I adored Edith Evans but I don’t hear her voice when I read the lines. Not to say that doesn’t happen — when I played Miss Havisham, I couldn’t get Martita Hunt [famed British actress] out of my head.”
In Oscar Wilde’s enduring 1895 comedy, two men about town — Jack Worthing and his pal Algernon — fall for a pair of fair young ladies who are inexplicably intent on marrying a man named Ernest. The men come up with an intricate deception to land their quarry. And then the formidable Lady Bracknell steps in to ferret out the truth.
Jack describes the snobbish grande dame as a gorgon. “Yes, it’s true,” Phillips says. “She is rather unpleasant, and extremely intent on getting her own way. But try as she may, it’s Jack who comes out OK in the end, isn’t it?”
The part is a smallish-but-integral comedic gem in Wilde’s dazzlingly well-made satire. “It’s the shortest part I’ve played in some time. The disadvantage is you must come on striking 12,” she says. “There’s no opportunity to work up to it. You’ve got to come on high and stay up there.”
Phillips says the rhythm of Wilde’s language is difficult to master.
“I’m used to Shakespeare and have done a lot of Shaw. This is harder. It’s the heightened nature of the English. But of course he writes so well. When you rehearse it you realize what a great piece of work it is. It’s aged so well. I’ve done Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ and ‘A Woman of No Importance.’ But this particular play is a masterpiece. It’s like sitting in the middle of a clock. It’s a mechanism. The whole thing could collapse at any minute. It’s like being on ice skates. I find it exhilarating. It’s scary, but I don’t mind being scared.”
A radio personality throughout her teens, Phillips left her native Wales to study acting at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts where she was singled out for her talent and beauty in a year that included Diana Rigg and Glenda Jackson. After graduating, she seamlessly transferred to the professional stage.
Those same trusted mentors who predicted she would find professional satisfaction later in life, also advised her not to marry so early in her career. “Of course they were right again. “But what could I do? I was madly in love with O’Toole [she was married to movie star Peter O’Toole form 1959-1979]. And we had some wonderful times and two daughters. I don’t regret it.”
As part of O’Toole’s production company, Phillips’ job was to keep the sometimes hell raising actor in check. But all along she worked too, finding jobs and not attracting too much attention to herself. Exactly the opposite of what an ambitious actor is supposed to do. She draws a metaphor, comparing herself to the straight man who knows all about comedy but never gets a laugh.
Still, she gained international attention playing the deliciously evil Empress Livia in the much-ballyhooed BBC production of “I, Claudius.” And the last 10 years have been rife with nonstop theater successes on the London stage including her turn as Juliet in a retirement home-set “Romeo and Juliet,” and parts in “Cabaret” and Alan Bennett’s “People.”
“I love working and I’m able to concentrate on myself,” she says. “It’s funny. Now I have the career that I’ve dreamed about since I was a little girl.”
There are parts she’d have liked to have played but missed out on. “I regret not playing Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” I’d have been very good in that. Also I would have liked to play Ranevskaya, the heroine in Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ but at some point I realized I was too old for the part. It was preposterous, so I called it off. I’m probably too old to play Lady Bracknell, but since it’s a part played by women and men of all ages, I don’t think it matters so much.”
Recently Phillips moved to a trendy section of London’s East End. Since she arrived in London at 19 she has moved frequently, always eager to explore another area of the city she enjoys so much. Her current home is her favorite to date.
So why leave her beloved London at this point her career when she can work anywhere?
“I came for the part of course, and because Keith [Baxter] asked me. Who’d think we’d be working together all these years later in Washington? It’s really quite marvelous.”