Interview with actress Dame Sian Phillips

Talking all-things touring, SoGlos speaks to theatre royalty, Dame Siân Phillips about her lead role in heart-warming comedy drama, Driving Miss Daisy, before it comes to Everyman Theatre.

Ahead of Driving Miss Daisy's run at Everyman Theatre from Monday 9 to Saturday 14 October 2017, SoGlos catches up with lead actress and theatre legend Dame Siân Phillips.

Revealing what audiences can expect from the show, the esteemed actress discusses her acclaimed role as Daisy, and her excitement at coming to Cheltenham…

How’s the tour going so far?

Very well thank you, we’re in Newcastle at the moment which is lovely; it’s also a Matcham theatre like Cheltenham!

And are you looking forward to coming to Cheltenham?

Very much! I didn’t know there was a Frank Matcham theatre in Cheltenham, which I should have done, but I’ve never played Cheltenham in all my life, so I’m terribly pleased to be coming. Matcham theatres are just wonderful.

The tour has had such brilliant reviews so far…

Good! I never read reviews until after it’s all over, but I’m very glad to hear that.

It’s a difficult play so starting the tour was very tense, but now it’s settled down very well and I’m very, very happy with it.

People don't realise sometimes that it's not just a sweet play about a quirky relationship between two people of different ages, colour, education – it's a play that really does happen in time of terrible turmoil.

Can you tell us a little bit about Driving Miss Daisy, and your role?

Yes, I play Daisy and she’s a widow. She starts the play in her 70s and she finishes in her 90s… an hour and 40 minutes later, so it’s a short play!

When the play was written 30 years ago, 72 was a much older age than it is today. Our ideas of what is ‘old’ or ‘middle aged’ have changed completely since then.

At that time, Daisy was really fighting for her independence. She crashed her car and her son, who is middle aged, wants her to stop driving and to get a driver – she resents this with every bone in her body, because it’s a sign of losing your grip on your life, I suppose.

She’s independent, she lives alone, she has a housekeeper, and she doesn’t want to relinquish any of her control over her life. So it’s quite a big thing for her to battle against this whole idea of having a driver.

Anyway her son goes ahead and does it, and there’s a man sitting in the kitchen and she won’t use him for ages! Finally she gives in, and what happens after that, over the course of 20 years, is they develop a relationship.

How does the relationship develop against the backdrop of societal and racial prejudice?

He’s black, she’s white – at the period of the play, terrible things were happening in Atlanta, Georgia; there was lynching, shooting, burning, bombings. It was a horrible political time, and the play does touch on all of that.

People don’t realise sometimes that it’s not just a sweet play about a quirky relationship between two people of different ages, colour, education – it’s a play that really does happen in time of terrible turmoil, and a lot of racial horror.

Daisy’s relationship with this black driver is very, very funny; she thinks she isn’t prejudist at all, but she is actually, without realising it, in the way that a lot of people are who don’t mean to be.

Daisy’s an ex-schoolteacher, who thinks that she’s always right – she’s pretty opinionated! But gradually, she learns that there are some things she can’t put right.

The sadness of the play, although it is a comic drama, is that Daisy can’t undo some of the things she’s done in her life. And her life ends up in a way that no one could have imagined.

Do you personally find it uncomfortable, some of the issues that are raised?

No as they’re things that we address nowadays. It’s uncomfortable only in that they’re still happening today. You open up a paper, see terrible things, and think ‘nothing’s changed.’

In the play, Daisy is Jewish and her synagogue is bombed, which puts her on a par with her driver who saw his friend’s father being lynched.

It's a very well written play, and a very interesting play. It's entertaining more than anything – it's very funny!

Do you think the story is an important one to be told?

It does have relevance today! I’m not sure what’s important or unimportant; it’s entertaining more than anything – it’s very funny!

It’s a very well written play, and a very interesting play; its importance is that it has lasting power, and it’s as popular today and it was when it was formed.

Before you played Daisy, had you seen either the stage or film adaptation?

I’d never seen it on stage, but I wish I had! But I did rent the film before I started playing Daisy – I thought I’d better have a look!

It’s a great film, it won an Oscar. It’s slightly gentler maybe, than the way the play is written. The film is for a much bigger audience, but with the play you get a reaction you can hear.

How does the play cross a 25 year period?

You’ll have to watch it and see!

It must be interesting to cover a period where society changed so much…

Yes, it goes very fast as the play is quite short; you have to be a bit nippy and quick on your feet. The scene backstage is a lot more chaotic than the one on stage – running, jumping, changing clothes…

Certainly, throughout the play Daisy’s attitude changes a lot.

You’ve done huge productions, such as musicals. How does that compare to Driving Miss Daisy which is more pared down?

It has to be pared down, it’s much speedier than many stories! It’s very distilled, very concentrated.

How is it, working Derek Griffiths?

It’s lovely! We’d never met before, except once on the pavement very briefly to say hello, but we had never worked together before.

It’s a great pleasure to be working with him, and with Teddy Kempner who plays my son, a very well observed part – we’re just a trio, and it’s a very happy company.

And finally, what can audiences expect from the show?

It’s what it describes; a feel-good, comic drama. And, you’re home by 10pm, which is my criteria for theatre!

For more information see Driving Miss Daisy, call (01242) 572573, or visit directly.

By Kathryn Purvis

© SoGlos
Wednesday 04 October 2017

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