How We Met: Sian Phillips and Sean Mathias
The director Sean Mathias was born in Wales. His production of Uncle Vanya at the National was nominated for five Olivier Awards. His latest production, Marlene - A Tribute to Dietrich, starring Sian Phillips, will be touring in the early part of 1997. He now travels extensively and has no permanent base
Sian Phillips: My first meeting with Sean was in the early 1980s in Joe Allen, when he and my friend Jill Bennett came running into the restaurant like two things out of a Noel Coward play. They stopped at my table to have a quick chat; I remember thinking that Sean looked just like Augustus John's picture of Dylan Thomas, the one where Dylan looks like a fallen angel. I was having a spectacularly dim time in my life and I felt a bit jealous because they looked so incredibly glamorous.
Sean denies this meeting ever took place, but it did. We do agree that we met properly at a party held by Joan Washington and Richard E Grant. I happened to have been reading Sean's novel Manhattan Mourning the previous day and I was so surprised to see him. Sean recalls that I was looking unhappy, which was quite true.
We didn't become close until about 1992 when Sean suggested we meet for dinner so that we could discuss the possibility of working together on a production of Ibsen's Ghosts. I was on my way to meet him, and I'd stopped outside a little undertaker near the restaurant to look at a view of old London on display in the window. I was completely engrossed in this map, and Sean came up and startled me; he claims I didn't know who he was, where I was going or who I was meeting.
Since Ghosts, we've worked together on various projects. Sometimes we do have horrific rows, and he can upset me quite a lot, but unless he's being totally unreasonable - which he sometimes can be - I find his outbursts make me laugh more than anything. One day at the National, I thought I was just asking him questions about the production, but he obviously thought I was being incredibly tiresome. He put his head in his hands and said, "Oh God, am I going to have to put up with this all my life?" Everyone froze, but I just laughed so much that I had to leave the room. I was still laughing when I went to bed that night.
Friendship never gets in the way of professionalism; it never upsets me if he says, "That performance was absolutely ghastly," for instance, but he does have the ability to get to me in a way that very few people can. But those occasions are very rare. On the whole we have a very simple and cheerful relationship.
Sean has a very innovative, fluid and rather organic way of working which has changed my own approach to acting completely. Having been a child actress I picked up an awful lot of baggage along the way, but since meeting Sean I have lost interest in those trappings. I'm much more flexible and relaxed. I no longer fuss about things like "Can I be seen if I stand here? Am I lit properly? Can I be heard?" My priorities have changed and I find acting more enjoyable as a result.
I don't form friendships quickly and I tend automatically to think that people are going to let me down. I remember misjudging Sean very badly quite early on in our friendship. We had arranged that he would pick me up at my flat and we'd go on to see a play in East London. Somehow I'd assumed that Sean would have forgotten, so I took the tube. Later he passed me in the street near to the theatre, and he shouted from the car, "Do you honestly think I would have forgotten to pick you up?" I realised that I had made a terrible mistake. I'd underestimated him and I felt quite ashamed.
One thing we both suffer from is that people are intimidated by us. Because we put up a fairly convincing front, they think that this exterior image is the real person. It bores me to death when everyone assumes that I am somehow immune to being vulnerable, that I'm very cool and totally in control, because underneath I'm not like that at all. Being around Sean is very relaxing because he has never had that perception of me; he sussed me straight away.
Sean Mathias: It's sweet that Sian remembers that meeting with Jill Bennett, because Jill was incredibly symbolic in my life and her spirit hovers over me and in some odd sort of way hovers over the relationship Sian and I have engendered. But I have no recollection of this meeting in Joe Allen. I remember our first meeting as being at Joan Washington and Richard E Grant's party. Sian came up to me and said, "I'm so glad to meet you because I've just read your book." Sian was already a legend to me, because, of course, I am Welsh too. Meeting her was like meeting Marlene Dietrich.
My first impression at the party was quite deep. She was sitting on the sofa by herself, she left by herself and she seemed to leave before the party got going. I was rather impressed with her independence and I felt a little bit sorry for her, too. She looked rather unhappy.
I came across her again in Monmouth Street when she was absorbed in the map in the undertaker's window. I said hello and she looked at me rather vaguely and I thought, "God, she's on heroin or valium or something." Jill Bennett was known for popping a pill or two, and I thought, "Sean, you've done it again, you're about to get another leading lady who's more fond of the pills than anything else." Then we decided to go for dinner together, and I drank an inordinate amount and Sian didn't touch a drop.
Yet she was every bit as merry as me, and I thought, "There you are, she is on drugs." I didn't know then that she won't even touch an aspirin.
We have known each other well since 1992, which isn't that long, but it has been an intense period and our lives have very much been on connecting paths ever since. Work and friendship are closely bonded; it's hard to divorce the two. In this business you never really close the door on work.
There are times when I like to go into hiding and Sian is one of the few people I always keep in touch with. If something went wrong for Sian I'd like to feel she could turn to me, and I feel that I can go to her. Ghosts, which was our first joint project, was very symbolic in our friendship. The mother and son at the centre of the play are not lovers but there is an erotic quality to their relationship, and I suppose that theme has over-spilled into the relationship between Sian and me.
It would be too simplistic to say that we are like mother and son, though; a rapport between two people is more complicated than a straightforward categorisation into gender and status. We're both Welsh, but I don't think that's why we have a rapport; being Welsh is just a characteristic of my nature, like my being gay. We're very close; we've been through times of great sadness and we've shared grief over friends who have died, but we have never delved into anything murky in our respective personal relationships. All of our fights have been professional - we haven't ever had a ghastly private moment.
I do push buttons in Sian and she pushes them in me; I feel free to say things to her that I wouldn't dare say to Judi Dench. We're opposites in some ways - Sian is logical, but I am abstract. Sian can be very obstinate if she doesn't understand something, which is why I sometimes hang my head in my hands.
Sian is nothing like her external image and we have that in common. People think I am a butterfly and I'm not at all. I am very loyal to the people I love. The idea that I wouldn't have bothered to go and pick up Sian that time is abhorrent to me. I hate letting people down. I'm not off- hand about the people I love. I hate being let down, and it's something I wouldn't do to anyone else. !
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