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Canadian stage greats have actor, director Robin Phillips to thank

Robin Phillips, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, June 2, 1976.

Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

It's a priceless image: a young Albert Schultz as Romeo, shivering on the sidewalk outside Stratford, Ont.'s old YMCA on a bitterly cold spring day, trying to rehearse the balcony scene with Susan Coyne's Juliet as she watches him through a closed window. And with her behind the pane, laughing delightedly, is Robin Phillips.

The director's delight wasn't sadistic. Rather, he was thrilled to see Mr. Schultz, suddenly thrust into playing Romeo as a desperately love-struck Canadian kid, tracing hearts for Juliet on the fogged window glass. For Mr. Phillips, transplanted Englishman though he was, believed passionately in making Shakespeare speak to Canadian audiences.

Mr. Phillips, who died July 25 at the age of 75 at his home outside Stratford, after a long illness, was one of Canada's most revered, influential and controversial classical directors. His tenure as the artistic head of the Stratford Festival, from 1975 to 1980, has become the stuff of legend, from its galaxy of stars – Maggie Smith, Peter Ustinov, Jessica Tandy – to its visionary productions. As a director and mentor, he ignited a generation of Canada's best stage artists and sowed the seeds for such fabulous enterprises as Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre.

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But in his time he also endured criticism and insults from staunch nationalists, was both admired and hated for his bloody-minded perfectionism and could be unpredictable and even outright brutal in the rehearsal hall.

Yet the Robin Phillips that many actors gratefully remember is a man who taught them as he directed, gave classic texts a crystalline clarity and inspired them to do their best work. And at the end of the day, despite his driven nature, he loved to have fun.

"I don't know that I've ever laughed so hard as I did when I was working with Robin," said Mr. Schultz, Soulpepper's artistic director, recalling his early days in Mr. Phillips's seminal Stratford Festival Young Company. "Robin had a great, infectious laugh," added actress and filmmaker Martha Burns, who was shooting a documentary with Ms. Coyne about Mr. Phillips at the time of his death. "Rehearsal was all about his finding things that could leave you rolling on the floor. He could make you feel like you were really playing, like you were back in your backyard, creating the world under a tree."

Mr. Phillips's first backyard was the English countryside around Haslemere, Surrey, where he was born in humble circumstances on Feb. 28, 1940 (not 1942, as most biographies indicate). According to Joe Mandel, Mr. Phillips's long-time partner, the incorrect date was listed on his first British passport and remained on the records thereafter. The son of James Phillips, a gardener, and Ellen (née Barfoot), a housemaid, Mr. Phillips as a boy got his first taste of theatrical glory when his parents worked at the country home of swashbuckling stage and screen star Stewart Granger. "He remembered being carried around on Stewart Granger's shoulders as a kid," Mr. Mandel said.

Mr. Phillips studied at the Bristol Old Vic's theatre school, where he trained as an actor, director and designer, and found himself mingling with many Canadian students. It was then, Mr. Mandel said, that Mr. Phillips became convinced Shakespeare sounded best spoken in a Canadian accent.

With his Byronic good looks, Mr. Phillips seemed destined to be an actor, and during the 1960s he landed guest spots on such beloved British television series as Doctor Who, The Saint and The Avengers, as well as the title role in an all-star remake of David Copperfield. But he couldn't act without also offering advice, and Mr. Mandel said his fellow actors urged him to switch to directing.

Behind the footlights, he quickly made a powerful impression. His daring London production of Abelard and Heloise, featuring Avengers star Diana Rigg and a much-discussed nude scene, transferred to Broadway. At the Royal Shakespeare Company, his then-radical modern-dress revival of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, starring up-and-comers Helen Mirren and Patrick Stewart and set beside a swimming pool, caused a sensation. But Mr. Mandel, a New Zealand-born restaurateur who became his partner in 1971, said Mr. Phillips deplored the class system in England. "Robin didn't have a university background and very often felt that downward pressure," he said. "The big [theatre] companies were run by Oxbridge graduates, who were none too pleased that this country boy should be throwing down the gauntlet."

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When the offer to run Stratford came up, Mr. Phillips accepted – even though, upon arrival, he found himself the unwitting target of nationalist fury. Canadians sensitive to the colonial implications of a young, hotshot British director being hired to run their country's biggest theatre festival protested his appointment.

Mr. Phillips responded by sweeping away all of Stratford's precious British affectations – the lavish Elizabethan costumes, the grand gestures, the declamatory speech – and instead insisting on a simple but elegant Shakespeare that was played with a cinematic attention to detail and a psychological realism. And he demanded that actors use their natural Canadian accents and rhythms.

At the same time, he worked his London connections to bring star power to the box office – although, in truth, those stars needed Mr. Phillips as much as he needed them. It's ironic, given that his life would be blighted with ill health, but Mr. Phillips was regarded as a kind of brilliant young director-doctor who could cure what ailed you. He convinced Maggie Smith, not yet a Dame but already an Oscar-winning film star – and one suffering from too many comic tics and mannerisms – to come to Stratford for a course of theatrical therapy. He cast her both in comedies – often pairing her with future festival mainstay Brian Bedford – and tragedies. It did wonders for her acting and she spread the word to other stars, such as Peter Ustinov, who went to Mr. Phillips when he wanted to shed his jovial persona and play King Lear.

Mr. Phillips was also tonic for Canada's top classical actors, including Martha Henry, Douglas Rain, Richard Monette and the formidable William Hutt, coaxing them into giving career-defining performances. One of his first inspired strokes was to artfully cast Mr. Hutt as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Although Mr. Hutt had initially been considered for the festival directorship, he quickly warmed to Mr. Phillips. "William Hutt always credited Phillips for giving him a new life and direction as classical actor," noted the late Mr. Hutt's biographer, Keith Garebian. The two hit it off immediately, Mr. Garebian said, recalling Mr. Hutt's description of their first get-together. "Hutt invited Phillips to dinner at his home one blustery evening in January, and plied him with his lethal martinis until Robin was lying on the dining room floor, bombed out of his mind, but still talking and making eminent sense."

There was also much conviviality at the Church Restaurant, which Mr. Mandel opened in Stratford to coincide with Mr. Phillips's first festival season. It became the regular watering hole for Maggie Smith and her husband, playwright Beverley Cross, while Mr. Ustinov regaled strangers with stories as he stood at the bar. Ms. Burns said Mr. Phillips and Mr. Mandel shared exacting standards. "One of my favourite moments was eating in the Church Restaurant with Robin and him being so proud of a plate of food that had come from the kitchen, saying 'Look at the attention to detail in this!' His pride in Joe's own perfectionism was obvious."

Perfectionism and a fierce work ethic eventually took their toll on Mr. Phillips, who expanded the festival's programming and then staged most of the shows himself. In six years, he directed or co-directed 35 productions. Burned out, he resigned at the end of the 1980 season, not returning until 1987 when, under artistic director John Neville, he took charge of the festival's Young Company for two critically acclaimed seasons.

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The remarkable troupe of actors under his tutelage included many of the future founding members of Soulpepper. He directed them in productions that were breathtaking in their simple beauty and honesty, including a King Lear with William Hutt and an As You Like It with a young Nancy Palk. Ms. Palk, who would go on to co-star with Denzel Washington in Mr. Phillips's 1990 production of Richard III for New York's Shakespeare in the Park, remembers that for her Young Company audition Mr. Phillips asked her to play Lady Macbeth as if she were then-prime minister's wife Mila Mulroney. "We had a lot of fun," she said, "but behind it there was always this dead-serious notion that being in the theatre and doing Shakespeare was a calling – it was something bigger than just putting on a play."

Mr. Phillips seldom directed new Canadian work, but he made a notable exception with the plays of John Murrell. He formed a bond with the erudite playwright while staging the latter's Chekhov translations at Stratford and would go on to direct the premieres of his plays Farther West, New World and Democracy. "Robin directed everything, new or old, as though the play had never before been directed," Mr. Murrell recalled, "and he, personally, had to make profound sense of it."

Mr. Murrell remembers an incident when Mr. Phillips was directing his poetic tragedy Farther West at Theatre Calgary in 1982. The playwright was absent from rehearsals for a few days and, when he returned, there was tension in the air. "Robin took me aside and said, 'John, I want you to know this before one of the others tells you: Yesterday, in the middle of rehearsal, I threw your script with all my strength across the stage and cried out, "Nobody could make this shit work!" But I also want you to know that I did exactly the same thing, the last time I directed King Lear.'"

In 1988, Mr. Phillips was lured to Edmonton by canny Citadel Theatre founder Joe Shoctor, first to stage a double bill of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Crucible, and then to run the theatre itself. Mr. Phillips kicked off that new chapter in his career with typical panache, winning the rights to reboot Andrew Lloyd Webber's poorly received musical Aspects of Love, which in his new conception would tour successfully to Toronto and the United States.

His Citadel seasons were filled with highlights and more experimentation. One of his more striking achievements there was a counter-intuitive interpretation of Edmond Rostand's verse drama Cyrano de Bergerac, with a new translation by Mr. Murrell and a gentle, sensitive Brent Carver as the flamboyant title character. Kate Newby, a small, dark Calgary actress known for sultry roles, was cast as the luminous Roxane. "I was both terrified and exhilarated," Ms. Newby said. "He could be brutal and a bully, but he had passion and heart and his expectations for you were huge."

Dave Jackson, who served as public affairs director at the Citadel and became a good friend, said Mr. Phillips transformed the theatre in his five years there. "Before he came, a lot of the programming was just about putting bums in seats. He made it all about the art – and we still managed to play to good houses."

After Edmonton, Mr. Phillips freelanced, directing and designing operas at the Canadian Opera Company and the musical Jekyll & Hyde, which ran for almost four years on Broadway. He also reunited with his Young Company alumni to help launch Soulpepper, directing its inaugural productions of Schiller's Don Carlos and Molière's The Misanthrope. But health problems dogged his final years. He underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery and suffered from diabetes, limiting him to occasional projects.

Mr. Phillips had received an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Ontario in 1983 and more honours followed later in life. The man the nationalists had once reviled was named to the Order of Canada in 2005 and given the Governor-General's Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010.

Mr. Mandel says Mr. Phillips spent his last days peacefully at the couple's farmhouse in Lakeside, Ont., in the countryside he loved. Aside from Mr. Mandel, Mr. Phillips leaves a sister, Hilary Weatherburn, and a niece and nephew.

Antoni Cimolino, Stratford's current artistic director, is among the many who regard Mr. Phillips as a mentor and he said the director's once-startling approach to Canadianizing the classics is "now part of the Stratford acting DNA. And it's not just at the festival," he added. "His influence can be seen right across the country. That was his greatest contribution."

His spirit, meanwhile, continues to goad and inspire those who knew him. "If I imagine Robin in the audience," Ms. Palk said, "I know I'll give a truer performance."

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