Stage Door News

Stratford: Beloved Canadian actor Martha Henry dies at age 83

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Stratford Festival is overcome with grief at the death of Martha Henry, just 12 days after her final tour-de-force performance in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. The grief of her colleagues is matched only by their gratitude for her unparalleled contributions to Canadian theatre. Ms Henry died just after midnight today of cancer at her home in Stratford with her family.


“Our hearts are shattered,” said Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. “In losing Martha Henry we have lost the dearest friend, the most inspiring mentor and an unforgettable, original talent. Her profound love for the Stratford Festival, her ingrained wisdom and her integrity were for me a compass.


“The name Martha Henry is synonymous with artistry, intelligence and beauty. As an actor her performances became the stuff of legend. As a director her productions illuminated not only the text but the world that each actor inhabited as a result of her encouragement and imagination.


“And yet despite fame she worked tirelessly. She knew that grit, dedication and craft were the foundation for inspiration and art.


“Her sense of responsibility to the theatre was so profound that it enabled her to endure pain and face down her terminal disease to complete an astoundingly truthful performance as a dying woman in Three Tall Woman. Her life became art.”


The first graduate of Canada’s National Theatre School, Ms Henry joined the Stratford acting company in 1962, playing Miranda to William Hutt’s Prospero in The Tempest. Nearly 60 years later, she took on the role of Prospero to Mamie Zwettler’s Miranda. This year Ms Zwettler, Lucy Peacock and Andrew Iles joined Ms Henry in Three Tall Women, directed by Ms Henry’s life-long friend and colleague Diana Leblanc.


Ms Henry’s dedication to the craft was reflected in the way she approached this final role. She received her cancer diagnosis not long before the cancellation of the 2020 production, and the year off proved to be a gift to her, allowing her to come back in 2021 after treatment to take on the job with gusto. Throughout rehearsal and early performances, Ms Henry was using a walker; about a month into the run, in September, she moved into a wheelchair, navigating the stage with great energy and intention. She delivered a commanding closing performance on October 9, fulfilling her deepest desire to perform almost until drawing her last breath.


Ms Henry was with the Festival for a remarkable 47 seasons between 1962 and 2021. In addition to performing in more than 70 productions and directing 14 more, she served as the director of the Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory for 10 years, from 2007 to 2016, and as director of the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction from 2017 to 2020, nurturing the next generation of classical artists.


Beyond Stratford, she served as Artistic Director of the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, from 1988 to 1994. She acted and directed at the Shaw Festival, the National Arts Centre, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, Theatre Calgary, Vancouver’s Arts Club and Edmonton’s Citadel; and at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., at Lincoln Center in New York and in London’s West End. She taught at the National Theatre School, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Windsor and served two three-year appointments to the board of the Canada Council for the Arts.


Ms Henry was a leading light in a generation focused on building a uniquely Canadian industry with a uniquely Canadian voice. Her relationship with the Festival, in its seventh decade at her death, was crucial to the theatre’s success. Her work in theatres across Canada enriched the cultural landscape of the country immeasurably. She was a Companion of the Order of Canada, a Member of the Order of Ontario and a recipient of the Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award.


Her contributions to theatre, film and television were celebrated with five Genie Awards, two Betty Mitchell Awards, a Toronto Drama Desk Award, a New York Theatre World Award, three Gemini Awards and seven honorary doctorates. She was also a Lifetime Member of Actors’ Equity.


Ms Henry’s Shakespearean roles at Stratford ran the gamut: Miranda, Lady Macduff, Cressida, Luciana, Phrynia, Rosaline, Cordelia, Lady Percy, Joan la Pucelle, Viola, Titania, Desdemona, Thaisa, Constance, Isabella, both Helenas, Lady Anne, Beatrice, Paulina, the Princess of France, Doll Tearsheet, Goneril, Volumnia, Lady Macbeth, Cymbeline’s Queen, Queen Eleanor, the Countess of Rossillion, Queen Margaret and Prospero.


After making her 1962 debut with William Hutt in The Tempest, she shared the stage with him on num

erous occasions, notably as Mary to his James Tyrone in 1994’s Long Day’s Journey into Night – also directed by Ms Leblanc – an unforgettable production, that was reprised in 1995 and then filmed, winning Ms Henry a Genie for Best Actress in 1996.


In 1968, Ms Henry married actor Douglas Rain. The two performed together in numerous productions, including Cyrano de Bergerac, Timon of Athens, Measure for Measure, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry VI, Twelfth Night, Colours in the Dark, Pericles, The Crucible and The Devils. In 1980, Ms Henry made her Stratford directorial debut with Brief Lives featuring Mr. Rain as John Aubrey.


Ms Henry famously played the role of Beatrice with another of her favourite leading men, Brian Bedford, in Richard Monette’s 1998 production of Much Ado About Nothing, which toured to Lincoln Center and was fondly remembered in The New York Times among the great Shakespeare performances of our day. The two shared the stage on many occasions, including as Richard III and Lady Anne (1977); as Angelo and Isabella in Measure for Measure (1975, reprised in 1976); and as Paulina and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (1978).


In 1989, Ms Henry married actor Rod Beattie. The two worked together on many productions, including as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in 1999. More recently, Ms Henry directed Mr. Beattie in Twelfth Night (2017) and Henry VIII (2019). They last performed together in the 2018 production of The Tempest.


Other highlights of Ms Henry’s career included Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, opposite Peter Donat (1963); Cordelia to John Colicos’s King Lear (1964); Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) in Henry VI (1966), and Viola that same year to Christopher Newton’s Orsino in Twelfth Night; Thaisa in Pericles with Nicholas Pennell (1973 and reprised 1974); Olga in Three Sisterswith Maggie Smith and Marti Maraden (1976); Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman with Al Waxman (1997); Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Peter Donaldson (2001); The Little Foxes, with William Hutt, Brian Bedford and Diana Leblanc (1996); Volumnia in Coriolanus with Tom McCamus (1997) and with Colm Feore (2006); and Prof, with Luke Humphrey playing Murph, in Taking Shakespeare, a play written especially for her by John Murrell (2013).


As a director at the Festival, Ms Henry’s productions included Brief Lives, Richard II, Richard III, Antony and Cleopatra, Of Mice and Men, An Enemy of the People, Three Sisters, the première of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex, Measure for Measure, Mother Courage and Her Children, She Stoops to Conquer, All My Sons, Twelfth Night and Henry VIII, which was released as a film this past year.


Ms Henry was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1938. It was when she was living in Greenville, MI, with her grandparents, Glenn and Rose Hatch, after her parents’ divorce that she happened upon some play scripts in an attic trunk. These sparked an interest in theatre, which was greatly nurtured by her mother, Konnie, a professional musician, who sent her to Kingswood, a private school outside Detroit, which offered an excellent theatre program. The young Martha then went on to study at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University).


Upon graduation in 1959, Ms Henry ignored the well-trodden path to New York and instead headed for Canada. She had seen performances at the Stratford Festival, and she said later that although she never imagined she could work there, it was the reason she came to Canada. “There was no place like Stratford in the States at all,” she said in a 1994 interview. “I saw great actors – Christopher Plummer, Bill Hutt – I could understand Hamlet! A door opened to me. It was so exciting and thrilling, and I thought any country that produced a Stratford was one I wanted to be a part of.” She became a Canadian citizen in 1970 and, over the next 51 years, made an indelible mark on her adopted homeland.


A memorial for Ms Henry will be held at the Stratford Festival at an appropriate time. The Festival captured a performance of Three Tall Women on film in the hope of securing the rights to share it. The first Shakespeare production at the Tom Patterson Theatre will be dedicated to her memory.


Photo: Martha Henry as A in Three Tall Women, © 2021 V. Tony Hauser; Martha Henry as Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, © 1994 Cylla von Tiedemann; Martha Henry as the Princess of France in Love’s Labours Lost, © 1979 Zoe Dominic.