Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

After the Writer the Friend

In Memory

Phil Morris , Remembered as Teacher, Actor, Editor & Friend , December 30, 2021
In Memory by Phil Morris At mid-day on December 23rd a tribute was held for Phil Morris. The platform was online and participants gathered from afar. Wales, London, Kentucky, California, China even were among the locations. The format followed the arc of a rich working life. Students of old from the former campus in Caerleon spoke of an inspirational teacher, one of those who makes a mark to last a lifetime. One of the company sang two songs in tribute. Others had poetry to speak.

Contemporaries from LAMDA days remembered an actor with two qualities. In a production of "Diary of a Suicide" the characterisation had not only been side-splittingly funny but Phil never forgot the art that is theatre. An actor is there in collaboration, a performance is both individual action and contribution to a whole, beyond the self.

The memories and testaments moved to the last decade. Wales Arts Review came into being to give critical writing in Wales an immediacy, a modernity and a verve that were needed. Phil was a contributor and a shaping force. Gary Raymond has written his own fine tribute, covering the qualities of fusion that underpin all truly creative endeavour. This was the time of my own meeting, Phil first featuring on this site in November 2012.

The occasion was a critical round-table, largely of his organising. The venue was the RWCMD and the programme sparkled. Phil himself was on stage for a panel on Richard Burton. “Look Back in Anger” has life still as a play but the film has not held up well. Phil told us the reason: "Jimmy Porter is a lost cause and Burton couldn’t play a lost cause.” He got it right, as he invariably got things right.

We nudged our way from acquaintanceship into friendship. The thing about friendship is that it just happens. Most of what we do, day on day, is powered by intent. We are purposeful. But friends are different, they become what they are, or as they are, in a silent way, by osmosis, a process of stealth. Friendship may become a constant but it does not have to be frequent. We would meet, not even that often, in a place that was spacious and had a quietness for conversation. The first was the Coal Hole in the Strand, a fitting place with a half-dozen theatres all around.

The conversation bubbled; three or four hours would simply evaporate in a welter of chat across writing, drama, film, cultural politics, political politics. Phil had a respect for management as do I. Management can be clean and purposeful, or it can be not. He had insights of an extraordinary breadth. No-one was ever more fulsome in public declaration of marital love. I liked his exuberance, his candour of exchange, his wryness, his groundedness, his generosity of spirit.

We were different in age, although I never asked and never noticed. Our personal lives and our working lives varied but there was a commonality of values and interests. In the months of lockdown I would post pictures from the films seen. They were from decades past and I was certain that the next day Phil's thumbs-up would be there, indicator of companionship at a two hundred and fifty mile distance. Those private idiosyncrasies of shared enthusiasms bond.

We were in communication a lot in 2021. He had a new life-chapter planned at the University of East Anglia. It was, I wrote to him, good news and necessary. Newport has its tributes in theatre- we both much liked "A Regular Little Houdini"- but it does not have its big, rich, multi-layered novel. "You", I wrote, "are the one to do it." It is to all our loss that the book is not to be.

2021 was the year that we were in collaboration for the first time. I had a chapter to write for the anthology that he had planned. It turned out to be thornier than expected with the extended closure of the libraries and the deadline getting closer. But I produced a workable five thousand words. They were good enough; but with an editor of depth good enough is not good enough.

Phil responded modestly but firmly. His reading of what I had written had the sharpness to it of a gifted editor. His recommendation only had two sentences, one was formal, one was tonal. They were spot-on. It is not up to a writer to say if the writing is up to much. That is the reader's role. But a writer knows when one version is better than the one before. Phil has his legacy as a strong critic. The book will be a testimony to his editorial gifts.

We had not met since the time before the pandemic. In that last summer, a hot day in the July of 2019, we met on the banks of the Thames. The scene at Kingston was looking ridiculously idyllic. That stretch of the river has been a place of poets and artists for centuries. The bridge is one of the loveliest anywhere. The water was awash with canoes and skiffs, the tables and chairs on the bank overflowing with enjoyers of the sun. Phil knew a better place and guided us past the Rose Theatre, to a shadier pub garden. The talk flowed; after a while he had a text about a family arrangement. It was time to say goodbye; we had been there for four hours.

I had presumed those meet-ups would continue in that way every summer for all the summers that are to come. Now they will not. The friends we have are not so many and each diminishment matters. There is a phrase by Kant where he writes of art as finality without end. Finality without ending is a good phrase. That companionship may not be lived out in common presence but finality is not quite an ending. There is the consolation of memory- warm and vivid- but I miss him hugely, and will go on missing him.

The tributes at the gathering on 23rd December ran for two hours and forty minutes. Spoken words have their immediacy, their fullness, their emotiveness. Written words, a domain where Phil had mastery, are their complement. They have an economy and concentration to them. Thanks then to Catherine Paskell who got so much into one sentence and speaks for so many:

"He was fierce and smart in his writing, and friendly and warm to be around, and his loss will be so keenly felt rippling across the community and the arts sector in Wales."

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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