Stage Door News

Stratford: The Stratford Festival mourns the loss of Christopher Plummer

Friday, February 5, 2021

The Stratford Festival was shocked and deeply saddened by the news of Christopher Plummer’s death. The theatrical pioneer was a member of the Stratford acting company for 11 seasons between 1956 and 2012.

“Christopher Plummer was our North Star,” said Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. “His talent, wit and verve set the highest standards for performance especially that of Shakespeare. One of the Stratford Festival's most dynamic alumni he graced our stages in roles as diverse as King Lear, Cyrano and Barrymore. His work on screen and stage across the globe made us so proud of him. His support for Stratford was unparalleled as he returned time and again to fondly rejoin his company of players. 

“We shall not look upon his like again.”

Though a Festival pioneer, Mr. Plummer was not part of its initial seasons. Rather his starwas rising on Broadway when Artistic Director Michael Langham called him back to Canada in 1956 to play the title role in the Festival’s landmark production of Henry V, which also toured to the Edinburgh International Festival later that year.

In 1957, it was his performance as Hamlet that heralded the opening of the permanent Festival Theatre. Famously, Mr. Plummer was hospitalized with kidney stones and his understudy, one William Shatner, had to go on. Not wanting to be replaced by anyone, Mr. Plummer tried to escape the Stratford General Hospital in a morphine haze. He didn’t get out the door. The next day he heard of his understudy’s success, and as he wrote many years later: “I knew then that the SOB was going to be a ‘star.’”

When not playing Hamlet that season, Mr. Plummer was appearing as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, a perfect comic counterpoint. The following year he was Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, and Bardolph in Henry IV, Part I.

When he next returned, it was for a mammoth season in 1962, playing the title roles in both Macbeth and Cyrano de Bergerac. While Macbeth was met with mixed reviews – with its supporters as vehement as its detractors – his Cyrano was a triumph. It was a production he always remembered happily, playing alongside John Colicos, William Hutt, Toby Robins and Douglas Rain. He had similar fond memories of playing Mark Antony to Zoe Caldwell’s Cleopatra in 1967, a production the Festival toured to Expo ’67 in Montreal.

After a hiatus of almost 30 years, Mr. Plummer returned to Stratford in 1996 to work on the role that would win him his first Tony. He was absolutely unforgettable as John Barrymore in the William Luce play Barrymore, directed by Gene Saks, and the production so well received that it was taken to Broadway the following year, where it was celebrated at the Tonys. 

In 2002 he once again returned to the Stratford stage to play King Lear, in a production directed by Jonathan Miller. It toured to New York’s Lincoln Center, where it had, in his own words, an “exciting and more than satisfying” run. For many who saw it, it remains the definitive Lear.

In this century, Mr. Plummer returned to Stratford for three final seasons, playing Caesar in Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatraand Prospero in The Tempest, both directed by Des McAnuff and filmed by the Festival. He also developed his remarkable one-person show A Word or Two with Mr. McAnuff, presenting it here in 2012 and taking it on to Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in 2014.

Mr. Plummer and Mr. McAnuff revisited their Stratford productions in a series of interviews conducted for the Festival during the pandemic. It was certainly not expected to be Mr. Plummer’s final word on Stratford, but his warm and thought-provoking remembrances will be treasured by all.

“Christopher Plummer was not only one of the great actors of our time but the quintessential artist. He was a brilliant improvisational pianist and a magnificent writer. He had a great gift for elocution, a wondrous wit, and he was a formidable raconteur,” said Mr. McAnuff, reflecting on the legacy of his great friend and colleague.

“Chris could be impish and wise and most importantly, he had profound generosity, particularly toward other players. He not only loved acting, he loved actors, and relished the gifts of the most brilliant ones. Anyone who was lucky enough to be his friend is currently embracing the darkest shade of blue.” 

Photo: Christopher Plummer as Hamlet. © 1957 Herb Nott.