theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Siân Thomas describes Sean Holmes, director of The Price, as one of the best she has worked with. ‘It’s very exciting,’ she says, ‘to find a new generation out there. We’re all getting on and Warren Mitchell is 76, and Larry [Lamb] and Des [McAleer] are in their mid-fifties and I’m in my late forties and this wonderful golden boy of 30 being our daddy and telling us what to do.’ Her enthusiasm is palpable.
Last week, Siân opened in Arthur Miller’s play at the Apollo Theatre, recreating her role as Esther, the long-suffering wife of Larry Lamb’s Vic. The production began in 2002 at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn where it played to sell-out houses and excellent reviews. Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph described Siân’s Esther as ‘shimmering with melancholic exasperation’. Does she read reviews? ‘Sometimes I do.’ Pause. ‘If they’re really good I get tempted!’
She spent her early childhood in Canada surrounded by ‘extraordinary people’. The daughter of actors Ann Morrish and Powys Thomas, home for Siân during those formative years was Montreal, in a house belonging to the legendary director Tyrone Guthrie. Was it, then, inevitable that she would go on the stage? ‘All I can say is that from the age of about nine I suddenly knew that I had to be an actress, having not always felt that before because I could take it for granted. I thought [actors] were rather loud and what I really wanted to be was a ballet dancer because they were so quiet.’
Her parents’ parties were full of Canadian and British actors including Christopher Plummer who was then playing Hamlet at Stratford Ontario. Siân has a clear memory of another visitor, a practical joker: ‘He filled the bath with red Jell-O and then turned the hot water on in the bath. And I woke up and this whole bath was full of red jelly. [Childhood] was full of wonderful things like that with these rather larger-than-life people. I always thought they were loud in those days: “Are you going to be like mummy and daddy?” And I’d go, “No.” It was ballet. I was absolutely possessed with the ballet. We knew a ballet dancer in the New York City Ballet so I could go and watch Coppelia over and over and over and over again!’
When Siân’s parents divorced in the early sixties, the family returned to England without their father. ‘It’s like a strange dream my early childhood because it was different in Canada and kind of funny and free. And you do suddenly have to take on real life and grown-up school from about that age, from about seven. For me it was quite traumatic because I missed my dad so much and we didn’t see each other very often after that.’ For a young child, it must have been a wholly disorientating experience, which may go some way to explaining the shyness she later describes. ‘We were in Montreal which was a very cosmopolitan, wonderful place where people were bilingual. It was very exciting. And suddenly I was in this grey land called England with gym knickers and a uniform and rain and no dad. It was quite hard for me to adjust.’
At the age of nine, Siân’s yearning to thrill the world of ballet abruptly receded. ‘I thought, oh no, of course, an actress. So I don’t know whether I was really given a proper chance to look at the world. I don’t imagine I could do anything else. Maybe because it’s just what I’ve been doing for so long. But I do love it. And I hope that I would have found it anyway.’
She was young when she trained at the, possibly too young. ‘I was one of the youngest in my class. I think, in the perfect world, if I’d had a little bit more wisdom, I should have gone away for a year. I’d just turned 18. I auditioned when I was 17 and got in and thought oh, that’s it! It was the first one I tried and I got in so I didn’t even shop around and think let’s try RADA and see if they want me. I just thought, okay, Central, that’s it.’
She may have been young and, she says, a little unformed, but her three years at Central did not count for nothing. ‘I think three years doing anything that you love is not wasted. In some ways I knew more because I’d grown up with actors and I found some of it a bit silly because I knew all that.’ And she was shy. ‘There were much more worldly girls there who were much prettier and I thought God, help. It was reality meeting my kind of fantasies of “I’m going to be an actress”. It was probably rather good for me and I did learn a lot. There was one teacher in particular who was marvellous. But in some ways I think I began to really learn once I left and went to rep.’
The Equity quota scheme was in operation in the 1970s and theatres were only allowed to take on two provisional members in any one year. Sian’s Equity card arrived courtesy of the Playhouse Theatre in Newcastle. ‘In those days it was Newcastle Rep. I had wonderful parts and played lovely leads. Did a whole year and got my full card so it was a very good way to begin because you don’t half really learn your craft doing rep for a year.’
The past is, indeed, a foreign country. Siân was at the tail end of the old rep system. ‘Your whole kind of value system is different in some ways,’ says Siân. ‘I can remember sitting with friends of mine like Belinda [Lang] and Lindsay [Duncan] as we were waiting to see if we’d get a job at the end of drama school, and having conversations like: “Would you ever do a commercial?” “Oh no, of course I wouldn’t!” “Would you ever do a soap?” “Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” And we were all agreed that this was absolutely not the way. Now, of course, everyone — Judi Dench does coffee commercials — everyone thinks: get into a soap, make some money.’
Not that Siân envisages accepting a soap role even these days. ‘I think I’ve still got a kind of slightly old-fashioned value system. But when people leave drama school now, they’re geared towards getting into telly and making money. They just learn a different craft, I suppose. If you’re any good, you learn wherever you are. But theatre is a very distinct craft that you can’t learn by doing telly. But I think theatre is a great leveller, that really good actors do theatre magnificently. And then learn quite quickly to do film and telly. It separates the men from the boys, I think.’
If any given actress were to make a wish-list of parts and companies, I can’t help feeling the choices would greatly resemble Siân’s resumé, which includes such juicy parts as Goneril in Ninagawa’s Lear and Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, both for the RSC. She has played Celimene in The Misanthrope for Paul Unwin at the NT and Yelena for Branagh’s Renaissance company, Joanna in Ayckbourn’s West End production of House and Garden and Amanda in Private Lives for Manchester Royal Exchange. ‘I have been very lucky,’ says Siân. ‘I’ve done an awful lot at the National over the years and a fair amount, not as much, at the RSC, and in the last seven years I’ve done a lot of West End. There was a wonderful one I did back in ’97, ’98 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It was scary because it was frightfully grand.’
This turns out to be A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee — ‘such a wonderful writer’ — produced by Robert Fox, directed by Anthony Page, and starring Dame Maggie Smith and the recently honoured Dame Eileen Atkins. ‘Eileen was playing my mother, Maggie was playing my aunt. Annette Crosbie, who’s just brilliant; she’s not a dame — well, I don’t believe in all that — but she’s just as good as them, do you see, she’s a fantastic woman and actress. And me and John Standing and James Laurenson.’
She found the part of Julia both wonderful and difficult. ‘They were all of a certain age. And I was this brat daughter who’s totally dysfunctional and bursts in on the play at the top of Act Two and just is like a kind of time bomb. She’s quite unsympathetic, she’s not very nice but she’s got problems. It was quite a test because Maggie was brilliant in it and very funny and Eileen had a huge part where you just sided with her because she was a sort of martyr to her family. And then you see why she’s a martyr when I come on! It was extraordinary.’
An unexpected side effect was being approached in Sainsbury’s by those who had seen the play. ‘I used to get ticked off by people. Middle-aged ladies would say, “You’re a very naughty girl, you really really must behave. I hope you’ve learnt your lesson — you shouldn’t treat your elders like that!” As if I was really like that character! Because she’s a kind of rebel. To behave badly on stage with Maggie and Eileen…! It was fairly daunting because they are institutions. Maggie was just wonderful to work with.’
Siân is also full of praise for her Central cohorts — ‘a great peer group’. ‘There was Lindsay, who’s a marvellous actress who was in my year. And Belinda, who’s great. And those were my direct rivals, well, not rivals but you know, we were all students together.’ There were several actresses Siân particularly admired and by whom she was inspired when she was growing up. ‘Diana Rigg, certainly,’ she says. But her admiration has ever been tempered by clear-headedness. ‘I was always rather critical. I didn’t just worship.’ This unblinkered approach is evident today: ‘I don’t know. I feel, for my money, that now she’s got a little mannered but when she was younger, when I was growing up and going to see all sorts of wonderful things that she did at the RSC and the National, she was just superb. She was very free and I thought she was terrific.’
Glenda Jackson is another actress for whom she has great respect. ‘And Gemma Jones. She’s not a huge star [but] I thought, and still do think she’s remarkable. Sheila Gish. They’re not huge, huge enormous stars but marvellous actresses who are coming into their own, who are just that much older than me, that I would look up to when I was thinking of being an actor and then when I was becoming one. And now that I’m hopefully kind of established, I still do look up to them. I think they’re wonderful. They’ve got such truth and verve and passion and wit, which is what I love in acting. It’s when you can turn on a sixpence and have a kind of volatility and not just do one thing rather well. Surprise yourself, let alone the audience.’
Siân’s most recent appearance in the West End was with Madonna in David Williamson’s Up For Grabs. Giving a ‘scene-stealingly funny’ performance, according to The Guardian, she played a self-possessed art adviser. It just so happened that she was directed, for the first time, by her brother-in-law Laurence Boswell who is married to Siân’s sister, Sara Mair-Thomas, also an actress. It was, she relates, an extraordinary experience. And who could doubt it? ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for the world because it’s such an extraordinary, bizarre thing to work with someone like Madonna. You don’t get asked twice very often. Well, who knows! It’s not something you think, errm, no, don’t think so. You just think, I’ve gotta do it. It’ll be one you can tell your grandchildren.’
The reviews were not kind about Madonna or the play. ‘She’s a very confident girl because she’s who she is,’ says Siân. ‘And she was nervous on the first night and the critics were horrible to her really. They can be very cruel.’ Siân has the greatest regard for the playwright. ‘He has done some wonderful work but I didn’t think the play was a wonderful piece, and maybe it was a bit hypocritical of me to do it but I did rather like my part and knew I could make that work. It was a sort of absolute classic cameo, a gift of a part. And I’m very grateful for that because David Williamson did write a wonderful part. And he very generously said, “Oh, but you’ve made it your own”. I suppose I did. It was funny, I just did enjoy it and it was a hoot.’
And Madonna? Siân has many good things to say about the iconic singer. ‘I was very fond of her. It was difficult for everyone because she’s so big and everyone was very frightened. And everybody else in the cast was American so they kind of bought into it all a bit more.’ The fact that Siân and the director knew each other well was extremely helpful. ‘You could try and cut corners. And all my scenes were just with Madonna so you really had to have a relationship with her.’
Siân was robust in her approach to the situation. ‘It took me about 24 hours because at first you do just sit there thinking oh, my God, she’s so famous. Every little curl of her beautiful face. She’s an icon. And then after, I suppose, the second day, I suddenly thought, I’ve had enough of this, she’s not very good, she doesn’t know what she’s doing really. And I refused to sit there thinking I’ve got to be polite, I’ve got to be frightened, I’ve got to practically leave the room walking backwards and genuflecting, which is what we were all advised to do. And I thought no, I don’t work like this, and I’m going to be myself and if they don’t like it, they can sack me because it’s not the be-all and end-all in terms of parts — it was a lovely little cameo gem but you know. I don’t know where it was coming from. She never said, “You’ve gotta treat me like I’m God” but there was a feeling of great fear. I thought this is not productive and it’s very bad for her. I just got her number. I thought, I know you: underneath it all you’re like my kid sister — I have a step-sister in Canada — a kind of North American brat who’s been trapped in a corner. She’d been frozen by too much power and everyone saying yes, yes, three bags full. So I just gave myself permission to be rude to her in a very sweet, funny way. I sent her up a lot, quite to her face. And you could see this look of complete shock. And we were told not to touch her, she doesn’t like being touched. So I’d hug her a lot and go “Hi toots, how’re you doing?” and after about a day or two, she just suddenly got the joke and she adored me. That is the way to her heart as far as I was concerned: to not treat her like an icon but to treat her with humour and a certain amount of truth.’
Siân ended up being genuinely fond of Madonna. ‘I really adored her. She made me laugh; she was very generous. She was terribly vulnerable, although she’s not really an actress. Again, I used to try and give her help. No one would dare to criticize and you thought, well she needs support, she needs someone to say yeah, it’s good but it could be better and why are you doing that, that doesn’t work. It freed her up and I remember one point — she had great respect for me which was nice — she said, “You get all these laughs. I just stand there waiting and yawning ‘cos, yer know, the laugh goes on and on.”
The singer did get rather bored, apparently, and some of the questions she asked Siân betrayed her lack of grounding in acting. ‘A classic. She said to me, “Why is he changing the blocking because I really don’t like that. Why does he do that? I don’t mind if he changes the words, that’s okay, but why the blocking?” I thought this was very bizarre. And I said, “This is very interesting, M” — you couldn’t call her Madonna and Madge was out — “because most actors actually really can cope with the movements and the blocking being changed — it’s kind of organic. But the words tend to stay the same, we do actually need to work from the same scripts.” “Oh, really?” That was an indication of where she was at. She’s a dancer so to her the blocking was choreography and the words were something you just kind of stuck on the top. It’s from a completely different perspective and I think, in some ways, if perhaps Laurence and maybe everyone around, had understood that earlier, that she needed a very strong physical framework, then she might have felt more secure.’
This prompts Siân to ponder the issue of American stars coming over to work the London stage. ‘I think there’s a huge feeling that there’s too many Americans coming over here and pinching our jobs and [Madonna] is not even an actress. And I understand that. There are too many Americans pinching our jobs, quite frankly, and I don’t like the way it’s got to be an American movie star otherwise no one’s going to come. People will come to see good theatre. And what was fascinating was that the people that came [to Up For Grabs] were Madonna fans for the most part, not serious theatregoers. And the sweet pay-off was that they didn’t just get her, they got a lot of very good actors. Everyone was very well cast and very, very professional. It was quite beguiling to have a rock concert atmosphere, and they screamed for three minutes when she first walked on stage. And at the end they’d all stand up and shout. I’m getting withdrawal symptoms. I think it’s time I had a bit of that!’ I promise her I’ll do this for The Price and we both chuckle.
How did The Price come about? ‘It was very simple really. Sean Holmes asked to see me — I guess he’d sort of heard of my work and seen it — and we had a talk and I’d read the play, and we just got on.’ Holmes offered her the job the very next day. ‘I just think he’s wonderful and he proved to be a fantastic, a really fantastic director, one of the best I’ve worked with.’ She stresses what a treat it is to be reprising the role of Esther. ‘It’s a complete joy to me that we’re being allowed to do it again. It was a wonderful production and we all just grew into it and it’s very well balanced. This is a wonderful, wonderful play. We ended it on such a high. It was just reaching its prime and it was like being cut off in your prime. It’s right that we’re allowed to do it again. It was odd having to wait nine months but such is life.’
For an actress with two Olivier nominations under her belt (Vittoria in Countrymania at the National and Dawn in Up For Grabs at Wyndham’s) and a TMA Best Actress Award for Yelena in Uncle Vanya at the Royal Exchange, not to mention a happy home shared with her partner of 14 years, the poet and playwright Tony Harrison, and to whom she is clearly devoted, it’s a good life to have.
Sarah Vernon © 2003
Originally published on R&V 16-09-03
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