|Robin Phillips, in 1977. (Photo via Torstar News Service)|
|Maggie Smith as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream.|
(Photo by Robert C. Ragsdale, 1977)
I remember the grandeur of his Richard III (with Bedford as a malignantly charismatic Richard) and of his Midsummer Night’s Dream, where all the women on stage looked like Queen Elizabeth I. (I could never work out the meaning of the concept, but it was something to watch.) True to its fairy-tale narrative, his Winter’s Tale was transfixing: I took a group of high school theatre students to see it, and when it was over and the rest of the audience had departed, they were still glued to their seats, every one, gob-smacked, looking as if they’d been visited by fairies. His Macbeth didn’t really work, except for Smith’s neurotic Lady M., but the staging contained a couple of unforgettable theatrical moments. After the murder of Banquo, the actors in the banquet scene slipped silently onstage in the dark carrying parts of the table and the feast, so that when the lights came on both company and set were magically in place. The audience applauded happily. The staging of the scene that followed was a miracle of precise visual focus: the appearance of Banquo’s ghost was as startling to us as it was to Macbeth because the actor had stolen on while we were all looking somewhere else. It was like a magician’s feat of prestidigitation, and like a master showman Phillips pulled it off not once but twice: Macbeth’s second sighting of the ghost caught us as much off guard as the first.
|Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford in Much Ado About Nothing, 1980.|
(Photo via Cleveland State University Library)
Most of my fondest memories of Phillips productions are crowded with images of the incomparable Maggie Smith – who might have been the director’s muse – both alone and opposite Brian Bedford, who partnered her brilliantly in Much Ado About Nothing, Private Lives, The Sea Gull and The Guardsman. The best performances I saw her give without him were in Macbeth and especially Virginia, Edna O’Brien’s remarkable (and still unknown) three-hander about Virginia Woolf. Private Lives was astonishing. The pacing was brisk enough for Coward’s bons mots to leap gazelle-like across the stage, but Phillips was audacious enough to slow it down a tad – just enough for us to see the shattered lives underneath the hilarity. I’ve seen other technicians at the top of their game have their way with Private Lives (like Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman on Broadway) but I knew back in 1978 that no one during my lifetime would ever embody Amanda and Elyot with quite the combination of glittering comic surface and tragic depth that Smith and Bedford managed under Phillips’s guidance.
|Martha Henry as Paulina in The Winter's Tale,, 1978|
(Photo by Robert C. Ragsdale)
Phillips’s As You Like It is still in my pantheon of theatrical experiences. In the scene where Rosalind, in male attire, and Orlando (Wetherall) stage a pretend marriage, the two actors brought the characters so close to the reality of their shared adoration that you weren’t sure what you were seeing – whether Orlando had seen, for just a fleeting moment, through Rosalind’s disguise as Ganymede to the object of his passion, or whether the sincerity of the vows had worked some enchantment over the woodland setting and the courtship game and transformed them into the thing they were merely supposed to symbolize. Smith and Wetherall came close to a kiss and then pulled away at the last minute, as dazed as the lovers in Midsummer who, awakened by Theseus’s hunting horn, find they’ve slept in each other’s arms. Perhaps Robin Phillips only had the genius I glimpsed in this show – and in Private Lives and Measure for Measure and some others – for half a dozen years; I didn’t see the work he did later. But genius it undoubtedly was.
Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.