When the Rodgers & Hart musical Pal Joey was about to open in London's West End in 1980, its star Siân Phillips was a guest on a talk show called Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Her predecessor on the sofa was the polymath Anthony Burgess. As she arrived, the show's host, Frank Delaney, addressed Burgess: "Now, Anthony, you're a great wordsmith. You know every word in the dictionary. But is there any word to express the great beauty of Ms Siân Phillips here?" Burgess eyed the lady critically. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "Orchidaceous. Polypulchritudinous..." The camera checked the reaction of the orchidaceous Ms P and found her shaking her head.
Men have always been disconcerted by Phillips's looks. Her beauty is damnably un-British. The hauteur of her nose and eyebrows, the eloquent tremor of her wide mouth, the intense melancholy of her grey eyes seem to come from somewhere more sophisticated than the Swansea Valley. Gaze at her across the lunch table, and you think: she's so French (she could be Stéphane Audran's twin sister), she's so German (she remains a dead ringer for Marlene Dietrich, whom she has impersonated), she's so Roman...
Oh, yes. For television viewers over 40, she will always be the bitch of ancient Rome, because of her blood-curdling role as Livia in I, Claudius, which was dramatised on BBC2 in 1976 over 12 debauched and murderous weeks. It was the climax of a three-year stint of imperious matriarchs. In 1974, Phillips was Emmeline Pankhurst in Shoulder to Shoulder, leading the suffragettes to the vote by way of Aintree. In 1975 she was Beth Morgan, the mother in How Green Was My Valley. For a while, if you wanted tough and indomitable but sympathetic, you called Phillips. She played Mrs Patrick Campbell, Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth I, Clementine Churchill, Virginia Woolf...
And, of course, she played Peter O'Toole's wife for 20 years, a period that began in youthful bliss (they met when she was 23 and unhappily married; it was love at first sight), fell apart through years of husbandly misbehaviour, of incessant drunken "hellraising" and long absences, and ended in 1976, when she walked out and took up with a younger man called Robin Sachs, whom she left in 1991. The whole sorry tale emerged in the second volume of her sensational memoirs, Public Places, published in 2001 and minutely scrutinised by the nation. The last time she trod the West End boards was in 1996, playing Marlene.
Now she's back, in a new play called The Dark by Charlotte Jones (of Humble Boy fame) at the Donmar Warehouse, where she plays an old lady called Elsie, who discovers that her son is gay while they are surrounded by a baying mob, calling for the blood of a child molester.
"It's actually my third old lady in 18 months," she says laconically. "In LA last year, I played a 94-year-old in Israel Horovitz's play My Old Lady, and I've just been on the road with The Old Ladies by Ronald Acland. That one was about 80, a horrible old slug of a woman. I played her in padding so she oozed slowly down the stairs, a really repulsive old bag. The woman in The Dark is the youngest of the three, so this actually counts as going up in the world". Phillips laughs. She laughs a lot, without ever shedding her air of feral regality. It's like lunching with a mature lioness. How did she feel about all these old ladies? "It doesn't bother me. I've done it all my life, since I was a girl. I put on my first white wig - to play the mother of someone who was only two years younger than me - when I was about 35. I thought, 'Oh dear, that's the end of my career.' And the next part I was offered was Rosalind..."
The Dark is a curious black comedy - equal parts Ayckbourn and Orton - set in three adjacent households, where we see the action in all three houses simultaneously, and the actors unconsciously speak in chorus or antiphon, as their crisis-riven lives gradually interconnect. Hints of paedophilia and baby rape counterpoint the exchange of domestic trivia. Phillips loves the ensemble element, after years of two- and three-handers. "Technically it's an awesome play, terribly complicated. There are so many sound and lighting cues, it might as well be a musical at the Palladium. And you feel very responsible for the other actors, because if you screw up, a lot of things will go wrong for a lot of people. And you never get to go offstage."
Luckily, she's able to shed the trappings of age at weekend, when she transforms herself into a cabaret star. For almost five years, Phillips has had a flourishing career as a chanteuse, travelling the UK and abroad singing Kurt Weill, Brecht, Sondheim, Noël Coward, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel et al. "It started with Pal Joey. 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered' was the first number I ever sang in public. That was 20 years ago. I've done five musicals since, and after Marlene - which finishes with a cabaret spot - people who'd never seen me in a play assumed I was a cabaret artist. I got an invitation to go to Israel for a month to do 'anything' - and the man who's now my musical director said: 'Why don't you put a cabaret together?' So I learned about 30 songs, and toured Israel for a month. By the end, I had a show that was OK and took it to Paris and New York." But how did she come to have a big fan base in Israel? She smiles. "Everywhere I go in the world, they're always showing I, Claudius. It's a very good carte de visite. It's been extremely useful."
She concentrates on witty, bittersweet dispatches from the sex war. The climax is "Falling in Love Again". "It was the most scary thing I've ever done, starting this life," she says. "I just couldn't figure out how to do it. It wasn't until I started to sing in nightclubs and, er, food situation places, that I started to like it. It came to me in a blinding flash that I don't really like having a proscenium arch. I like being in among the people." You mean, singing while they're eating, and smoking and chatting? "Sure. I don't mind that. I don't care if they're drunk, or if they're falling over. I love it, because you're really in bed with your audience. But it took two years to get over the terror."
Phillips the Cabaret Star is the latest in a long line of "career categories" for the actress. The Welsh child star. The Rada ingenue. Half of the Star Couple. The Stay-at-Home Housewife. The TV Mega-Matriarch. The Bolting Wife. The Mature Sexual Tigress. The Actress in her Prime. The Autobiographer. The Old Lady Impersonator. Allegedly 70 this year, she radiates confidence and the clear-eyed unsinkability you associate with her former alter ego, Mrs Pankhurst - as well as some of the latter's unconventional qualities. For the last seven years, Phillips has shared living quarters with two men, one a director, one an osteopath. Recently the trio moved house to Islington, north London, "a very modern place, very high up, with fantastic views. I've always lived in period houses, which tend to be dark but with big gardens. Now I've only got a balcony, but I can look down on London, and see the rain coming on, and watch the sunsets." What do the three of them do in the evenings? "We go to the pictures, we cook meals, we hang out in the kitchen. I like it a lot. I didn't plan it. It just sort of happened." If she were invited to the Oscars, which flatmate would be her walker? "I wouldn't like to choose. I'd hope they would both come."
How does she plan to celebrate her big birthday? "I don't. I haven't had a birthday since I was 13." Why not? "My grandmother told me, 'Never have a birthday, because people get funny ideas in their heads about what you should be doing at certain ages.' And she was right. People say, 'Maybe you shouldn't be milking 50 cows at five in the morning at your age.' And then you start saying, 'Mmmm - maybe I shouldn't.' So that's why I don't bother. I don't want to start getting funny ideas..." Whereupon the most glamorous matriarch in the West End picks up her coat and heads back to The Dark, the riots, the blowtorch and the musical fray.
'The Dark' runs until 24 April at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0870 060 6624)Reuse content