Martha Henry Takes On Prospero at Stratford Festival
It is a milestone year for the grand dame of Canadian theatre, Martha Henry. Not only did she gracefully turn 80 in February, she is also celebrating being a leading lady by stepping onto the celebrated Stratford stage as a man.
Henry is in rehearsals as Prospero in a new version of The Tempest, directed by Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director for the Festival. “Antoni’s a hard man to turn down,” says Henry from her Stratford home on her reason to return to the stage as an octogenarian. “I’ve tried turning him down before. It just doesn’t seem to work,” she says with a little chuckle. Although it is hard to imagine Henry, who has achieved legendary status as an actor, artistic director and theatrical educator, not having the backbone to do as she pleases, she admits the lure of playing a major male Shakespearean role was very tempting. “While I am actually aware that I didn’t say yes, I am very aware that I never said no,” she explains.
Interestingly, Henry is of two minds about a woman playing Prospero. She says that she believes that Shakespeare wrote roles for men and for women that were not meant to be interchanged. She has played many of the female roles now, except Juliette and Ophelia. Shakespeare “knew what men did and the way men thought and behaved, and he knew the same about women.” she says. However, upon reflection as a self-described “biggest fan” of Shakespeare, Henry realized she was perhaps selling Shakespeare short in her thinking. Historically, women were not allowed on the stage in Shakespeare’s time, and men played the roles of women. “I became aware he was writing [The Tempest] for all time and for me, right here and now.”
So that became the basis for her reason to take on the role. There have been a few line changes and word changes such as he to she, father to mother, duke to duchess, but no other gender switches in the production. “It has turned out to be illuminating and quite delicious, actually,” she says. There have been several women in history to play the role, most notably Dame Helen Mirren in a film directed by Julie Taymor. Harriet Walker also played the role in 2017 in New York. Both women were in their mid-sixties when they took on the role. Henry says she has no plans to retire and takes extra care and works regularly on her mobility and voice to prepare for the physical challenges of the stage.
This will be Henry’s 44th season at Stratford. She has acted and directed, as well as being Director of the Birmingham Conservatory of Classical Theatre.
She first visited Stratford to see Christopher Plummer play Hamlet when she was 15, which motivated her to further understand Shakespeare. “These were brilliant actors who made this stuff come alive,” she says. She moved to Canada in 1959 from the Detroit area, to follow her passion for Canadian theatre over the uber-competitive scene of New York. She had met actors in Leamington, Ontario as a university student. They had encouraged her to look to Toronto for her career. Coincidentally in her first season at Stratford, 1962, she was also in The Tempest, as Prospero’s daughter Miranda.
Henry feels that her age, more than gender, enhances her performance in the role, especially during the soliloquy, our revels are now ended… “Of course I’m different now than when I played Miranda. In a sense, I am now playing my own mother. Now I look at it from a different point of view.” Her plan is to leave the door open to the role and see what comes out the other end. She says she is approaching it with an open heart to see what happens.
Henry says she never expected to be playing a leading male Shakespearean role. She says she questioned whether she was afraid, and decided to put herself up the challenge. “I began to be aware that Shakespeare himself was saying, of course it can be a woman. You just have to expand your imagination. So that is what I am in the process of doing now.”
During her tenure in Ontario, Henry has served as the Artistic Director of The Grand in London. As well, she was named to the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, and is the recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. She has embraced the Canadian stage and, in turn, the country has embraced her as one its own. Henry is a Canadian citizen. She is also the winner of Genie and Gemini awards for her work on the small screen and in films. She calls Canada her home, proclaiming how lucky she is to live here. We share that sentiment!