Skip to main content

Robin Phillips, former artistic director of the Stratford Festival, died Sunday aged 73. He is seen here in a 2006 file photo.Kelly Taylor/The Globe and Mail

Acclaimed director Robin Phillips – known for bringing his avant-garde take on Shakespeare to the Stratford Festival stage in the late seventies – has died. He was 73 when he passed Saturday morning.

Mr. Phillips served as artistic director of the festival from 1975 to 1980, where his imaginative scope and meticulous attention to detail inspired a next generation of actors and lured big names like Maggie Smith to the Canadian stage.

"It was, frankly, life-changing for me," the company's artistic director Antoni Cimolino said about the first time he saw a Phillips production as a teenager. "I went straight home and I told my dad I wasn't going to go to law school, but I was going to be an actor."

Born in Haslemere, England on Feb. 28, 1942, Mr. Phillips came to Canada after studying at the British theatre company Bristol Old Vic and acting across the U.K. on television and in film.

He worked 11 seasons in total – five as director – at Stratford Festival and directed 40 productions, including Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear.

Known for a high degree of dedication – staging five to six plays each season – and perfectionism that eventually took a toll on his health, Mr. Phillips had a way of bringing out the very best in his actors, Mr. Cimolino said.

"Once you'd worked with Robin, it was pretty impossible to go back to the old way of doing things," said Mr. Cimolino, who worked with Mr. Phillips on his last production at Stratford, King John. "He had a way of being able to create magic out of very, very little."

Mr. Phillips lured actress Jackie Burroughs away from the contemporary theatre scene in Toronto and back to Stratford in the mid-1970s. "A lot of people spend a lot of time acting for the audience," he said in 2010. "Jackie is so compelling and so bizarre and so penetrating that she demands your full attention. And God help you if you don't pay attention to her [as an actor] because you will find yourself walking straight through a laugh where you least expect it."

He brought other major talent to the Stratford stage, including Canadian stars such as Martha Henry and international names including Jessica Tandy and Brian Bedford.

Mr. Phillips was so consumed with the details, his executive director once found him downstairs sewing costumes for a production. "He wanted to understand every part of the festival," Mr. Cimolino said.

He would as much design a show as he would direct one, and his obsession with the details reflected on the stage.

"An actor became a jewel and he would provide the setting for it on the ring. He would make everything around you perfect," Mr. Cimolino said.

Mr. Phillips returned to the company in 1987 to direct and lead Stratford's Young Company, an influential group of actors who went on to form Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company in 1998.

He also served as director of the Citadel Theatre from 1990 to 1995, and directed productions on Broadway (Jekyll & Hyde) and the Canadian Stage Company (Larry's Party and the Elephant Man).

In London's West End, he directed Jessica Lange in Long Day's Journey into Night in 2000 and Ghosts in 2001.

Mr. Phillips was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Western Ontario in 1983, the Order of Canada in 2005, and a Governor General's Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010.