'Robin' Delivers a Master Class in Acting

Robin and Mark and Richard III
(Canada, 54 min.)
Dir. Martha Burns, Susan Coyle
Mark McKinney and Robin Phillips in Robin and Mark and Richard III.
Courtesy of the Bloor Cinema.

Canadian Shakespeare movies are rare, if not non-existent, yet the diversity of the Canuck landscape seems perfectly suited as a stage for epic tragedies in the Rocky Mountains, sheep-shearing comedies in the prairies, and tempestuous romances on the shores of the Atlantic. The scant bit of Shakespeare on Canadian screens makes the new doc Robin and Mark and Richard III a welcome addition to a relatively overlooked necessity of the Canadian arts scene. Shakespeare is strong on Canuck stages, be the spirit Bard be alive at Stratford or in an all-First Nations King Lear at the NAC. This doc profiles late director, actor, filmmaker, and teacher Robin Phillips and the legacy he leaves in Canadian drama. The spirit of Shakespeare is alive and well in this fun and intimate master class in acting.

Robin and Mark and Richard III demonstrates Phillips’ strength as a teacher and dramatist as actors/filmmakers Martha Burns and Susan Coyne (Slings and Arrows) capture their peer in conversation with Kids in the Hall funnyman Mark McKinney. McKinney, a successful Canuck comedy, wants to try his hand at Shakespeare despite having no experience in the classical side of the dramatic arts. He works tirelessly under Phillip’s guidance to perfect the art of Shakespearean acting by rehearsing lines for Richard III. It takes a larger leap than one expects to go from sketch comedy to Shakespeare, but under Phillips’ fastidious direction and perfectionist grasp of the verse, McKinney gradually learns to deliver Richard’s famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy with the right tempo, emphasis, and metre.

Additional peers pay tribute to Phillips (who died shortly after production) in snippets of interviews that appear throughout the film. Veteran actors such as Maggie Smith and Martha Henry fondly remember Phillips’ contribution to the stage in England and Canada. Their voices add to the portrait of the teacher and they support the passion one sees in the scenes of workshops, rehearsals, and conversations.

As the teacher and the actor perfect the play, Burns and Coyne capture the creative process in its finest form. The relationship between Phillips and McKinney is one of equals and of two men who simply relish the art of performing despite having vastly dissimilar backgrounds and styles. Phillips is every bit as much a comic as McKinney is, too, and the doc offers the sprightliest of rehearsals for Richard III that one could imagine. As the two actors riff on the verse and use McKinney’s comedic timing to the play’s advantage, the film also conveys Shakespeare’s wide appeal and universal charm when given the right delivery.

The energy is infectious as the directors film from the comfort of Phillips’ home near Stratford, Ontario, and as rehearsals develop as time passes. The doc introduces actress Christine Horne (Hyena Road) to the proceedings as she assumes the role of Lady Anne in the second act of McKinney’s progress. Horne’s entry late in the film stresses the longevity of Phillips’ influence on the arts as his protégés range from a celebrated Dame like Maggie Smith to up-and-coming contemporary Canuck actors. The rehearsals between the three actors are intense and intimate, and the filmmakers effectively use close-ups, asides, and direct addresses from the actors to break the fourth wall and draw the audience even closer into the acting class as McKinney delivers the lines like a pro. As one watches great drama evolve under Phillips’ guidance, Robin and Mark and Richard III draws the audience under the spell of the stage. If only the filmmakers had a chance to film Philipps as Prospero!

Robin and Mark and Richard III screens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema again on Wed. Apr. 20 with Martha Burns and Susan in attendance. It has encore screenings May 16 and 19.