A seat side stage with theatre production pair Carolyn Burns and Simon Phillips. By Kate Holden.

Carolyn Burns and Simon Phillips

When they arrive it’s a bit like royalty walking in. The actors push their seats back from the cast table cluttered with takeaway coffees and sheaves of script notes. Stage manager and assistant director Jess glistens with smiles for Simon Phillips, her adored boss, and Carolyn Burns, his partner and sometime collaborator. Simon’s laughter precedes him. He chuckles a lot, genial, avuncular, fruity. They advance down the rehearsal room in the dungeons of the State Theatre in Melbourne, hailing actors on either side. Would it be impertinent to describe them as a cheerful leprechaun and his human queen? Phillips is not the least small, but there is a puckish cheer about him, a spryness and nimbleness. Salt-and-pepper mane, magnificently à la arts sector; black shirt and trousers; warm friendly handshake. When he sits cross-legged and shoeless on the floor to watch the rehearsal, one yellow-socked foot nestles into the other foot in pale green. He looks like an early riser; might quite well spring from a bed of moss and heather.

Burns, by contrast, is rather regal, albeit friendly. Brown hair in a casual twist, a skirt and a scarf, red leather flat-heeled shoes of the type popular with brisk, readerly middle-aged women. Large thoughtful eyes and a familiar voice. She slips her bag from her shoulder, takes a foldout seat as Phillips is murmuring to Jess, and sets to work on her laptop. It is the morning after an outrageously pleasing opening night for one production, but no time for laurels; the flyer for this other one needs reviewing. She hunches over, occasionally contributing a droll aside to Phillips’s conference without taking her eyes from the screen.

The actors stride efficiently onto the “stage” area, run through the opening title sequence – “It just has to be on the day when there’s a journalist in the house,” jokes Matt Day when there is a very minor kerfuffle – and galumph cheerfully through the two-hour play. It has been rewritten by Burns from the Hitchcock original, and glows with new tension and shrewd humour. “Someone described me as an ‘adaptor’,” she confides delightedly. “An adaptor is something you plug in to a socket.” The cast intone their lines of Cold War paranoia and sultry romance, enjoying the whole thing thoroughly. Before them, both Burns and Phillips watch brightly, mouths open at the surprisingly fraught suspense; snorting at the cheekily hammy staging that sees Nicholas Bell’s bald pate hugely magnified, sparse hairs sprouting, as a stand-in for Mount Rushmore. It isn’t even the play’s first run, but they are agog.

Revisiting a play is their idea of relaxation. They’ve been on the road for three years, often chasing international productions of Priscilla, various of which Phillips directed. Previous to that, decades of madcap industry – hugely respected artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, of Love Never Dies, freelancing with the gamut of New Zealand and Australian companies, wrangling operas and classic plays, careening across the Pacific to Broadway, Stockholm and in between. That’s just Phillips. His wife, just as startlingly nifty, says it’s fine: she walks for an hour a day, and, as a writer, if she has a window in the sun, she can work anywhere. Her past includes journalism and children’s television, documentaries and dramaturgy, theatre and academia. “I’ve always been able to work in noise,” she explains.

Kindness between them, mutual regard. She likes collaboration, “especially with the old man here.” As they speak, they smile into each other’s eyes. Burns lilts away, thoughtful and a little cautious. “My skill is dialogue,” she offers, “and his skill is everything else.” Phillips interjects supportively, suggesting synonyms, stronger words of praise than Burns might claim for herself. His voice sounds older than he is, grained, enunciating, deep, almost Finneyesque: lovely, ironically, for a stage.

They’re booked up for years, a ceaseless tumult of creativity behind and ahead. “We had one holiday, didn’t we, a few years ago?” Burns asks Phillips. He laughs and laughs: “We had four days in Venice this year, at the Biennale.” That, Burns says tartly, was their wedding anniversary. They have a house in Australia but are never there. This is the problem with talent. One of the actors in this play is commuting daily between an evening production in Sydney, and morning rehearsals in Melbourne; she delivers all her lines immaculately, eyes shadowed with youthful exhaustion. Burns and Phillips are both so stunningly competent. “Oh, we’re just pretending,” Burns says. “We’re really deeply shallow.”

How do they cope with all the terrifying commitments? “Well, Simon’s awfully good at going with an idea,” says Burns, “and then actually facing reality later.” Phillips agrees vigorously. “I’m the voice of reason,” she goes on, “and Simon’s in the moment.” The idea that they’re a theatre power couple makes them squawk in shock. “That’s just completely weird,” Burns shudders. “I’ve always been one step behind the old man, actually, because he’s been the director and, you know, writers don’t really like to be noticed.” She reflects. “Even though I am older than Simon… I think that’s why we’ve managed to work together really well, because” – she turns to him – “there’s a slight fear that you have of me, isn’t there, darling?”

She smiles down his chuckle. “Seriously, it’s that I completely respect that hierarchy of it being the director and then everyone else. He has the final say.” Phillips is quiet, listening. “Even if in the end he will say, ‘You do not need this line.’ And I’ve gone, ‘But I really, really love that line’, and tried to justify it; but then I see that he’s completely right and…”

Her husband interjects one last time. “Not always, though. Sometimes she’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, but I really like it’, and because she’s reasonable, I’ll always leave it in. She wins.”

And so they literally walk off the stage and towards the next production.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 2, 2016 as "Double impact".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award.

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