by Lynn on April 20, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

A documentary by Martha Burns and Susan Coyne

At the Hot Docs Theatre, Bloor St. Toronto, Ont.

Three years ago actors Martha Burns and Susan Coyne decided to produce and direct a documentary of Robin Phillips in action as he coached actor/comedian Mark McKinney on Richard III.

Both Martha Burns and Susan Coyne worked at Stratford during the Robin Phillips years, in the 1980s. Coyne was a member of Phillips’ Young Company. Many members of that Young Company including Susan Coyne and others who were not members, including Martha Burns, got together to create Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Both Burns and Coyne have illustrious careers in acting, education and film. Coyne is a gifted writer, playwright and co-creator of Slings and Arrows, about a ‘mythic’ Shakespeare repertory company in a small town in Ontario that is reminiscent of another Shakespeare company in a city devoted to Shakespeare. Both Burns and Coyne know of what they speak regarding Shakespeare, film and Robin Phillips. Also there was some urgency to get this on film as Mr. Phillips was not in good health. In fact he died soon after the film was finished. It’s astounding that there is no official record on film of any of his productions.

The purpose of the film is to show all of that; record Mr. Phillips in action as he coaches, rehearses and teaches Mark McKinney about the ins and outs of Richard III. They were later joined by actress Christine Horne.

Mark McKinney is not the first name one would think of for such a project. He’s basically a comic actor/writer; is a member of Kids in the Hall; wrote for Saturday Night Live and was on Slings and Arrows as a harried administrator. But McKinney loves Shakespeare. He wanted to learn. He turns out to be the perfect student.

Those of us lucky enough to have seen a Robin Phillips production of anything, especially Shakespeare, know of his brilliant abilities as a director. This film beautifully indicates his abilities as an insightful, precise, exacting, respectful teacher.

The film was shot at Phillips’ home in the woods outside of Stratford. The setting is calm and idyllic. Robin Phillips’ knowledge of Shakespeare, and certainly Richard III, is prodigious. He goes through the first speech with McKinney word by word showing the importance of each syllable and pause. For his part McKinney is a wonderful student. He is curious, open, eager, inquisitive and asks the questions anyone with a love of the bard would ask. He is also vulnerable and thoughtful. There was no ego here.

On his part, Robin Phillips is gracious, insightful, brilliantly informative and answers every question with respect and consideration. McKinney asks if there is a pause at the end of a line with no punctuation. Phillips says that it’s not a pause but a beat with a dot. He gets me thinking about what that is. Every consonant must be nailed as part of the rhythm. Phillips is scrupulous about that, but not in a brittle way. McKinney is a quick study.

After a thorough study of the first two lines of the play Phillips marvels at their brilliance and that they say everything really and in a sense they can go home after that. But fortunately they don’t. There is the rest of the glorious play to explore.

When they are joined by Christine Horne she too is nervous to meet Phillips but he puts her at ease. McKinney and Horne will rehearse the first Lady Anne speech when Anne is taking the body of her husband for burial and Richard waylays her. What a speech! She is furious because he killed her husband but he wants her to be his wife. She is repulsed but with his charm is won over. Phillips navigates the many and various traps and clues in the speech, ramping up the emotion with his direction. The two actors are eager to put into practice what he has told them. In a way this is their graduating exercise, putting into practice everything they have learned. It’s brilliant.

Both Martha Burns and Susan Coyne have captured all this in their lovely film. They have interviewed actors both illustrious and just beginning about their thoughts on Robin Phillips as a director/teacher. Maggie Smith is grateful to him for stretching her as an actress when she was part of his company at Stratford. Brent Carver and Barbara Budd comment on his genius.

But Burns and Coyne do not shy away from the darker side of Robin Phillips. Martha Henry who is glowing in her comments on his ability also notes that he could be moody and turn on a dime. There is an incident in which she said “I knew I was dead” with a remark and notes that Phillips didn’t talk to her for a day or two. Two young actors of the Birmingham Conservatory, Brad Hodder and Antoine Yared, note that while Phillips was wonderful as a teacher he was also moody and they never knew who was coming in the room.

All this comes through in this wonderful film. Every single actor, director, theatre/Shakespeare lover worth his/her salt should this film.

It ends with a score of theatre artists saying “Thank you, Robin.” The same could be said to Martha Burns and Susan Coyne for talking on this project and showing us the genius of Robin Phillips. Thank you Martha and Susan.

Robin and Mark and Richard III plays at the Hot Docs Theatre:

April 20
May 16
May 19

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1 Tandy Cronyn April 21, 2016 at 1:47 am

When, where, how will this film get a wider release? I’m in NYC and can scarcely contain myself.