Actor and director Martha Henry is a Stratford Shakespeare Festival stalwart, but this summer she is working across the street: Her production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler opens at the Shaw Festival Aug. 10. She is directing Moya O’Connell in the title role in the play that’s sometimes called an actress’s Hamlet, the tragedy of the willful Hedda who has knowingly trapped herself in a loveless marriage.
Henry will return to the stage next summer: Stratford recently announced she will be appearing in John Murrell’s new play Taking Shakespeare in 2013. There, she plays a Shakespeare professor teaching a student Othello, a role Murrell has written for her and which echoes her work as director of Stratford’s Birmingham Conservatory.
Have you ever played Hedda yourself?
Yes. I played it in Winnipeg at the Manitoba Theatre Centre right after my daughter had been born. Not a good play to do when you are breastfeeding. That was the end of that, I’m afraid. [Hedda] is so adamant about not wanting to have a child.
What did you learn about the character that you could pass on?
It was a long time ago: My daughter is about to be 40. I remember the cast, I remember lots of hijinks. I remember my mother coming to take care of the baby in the rehearsal hall. I remember the baby looking at my hat and starting to cry. Those are my most vivid memories, not so much the character.
I was pleased I didn’t have a fixed idea about Hedda when I came to this one.
So what advice did you give Moya O’Connell?
You kind of look at Moya and think this is an ideal Hedda. Really, all I tried to do was leave her the room to develop her own woman. I have never known an actor to work harder. She has to play the piano, for instance, in the play and she doesn’t play the piano. She sat beside [music director] Paul Sportelli, and got a DVD of where the fingers went on the keys and studied it and studied it and simply came in one day and played it. It was astonishing. She just does these things. She attacks them. She has a will that is comparable to Hedda’s – although thankfully pointed in a more humane direction.
No woman today, at least in the West, lives with the kind of constraints Hedda does. How is the play still relevant?
Ibsen himself was a feminist; he said, ‘Hedda is me.’
We all have feminist tendencies, but that label in 2012 is so different depending on your age, your political experience, how hard you have had to fight to make the place you wish to create for yourself. Ranging from my age to the young women who are coming into the conservatory, the perceptions of what an oppressed female is are quite different. Hedda’s situation [is] probably not literally relevant, but we all have tendencies. We can all recognize the pain and longing of wanting to own our own bodies, and direct our lives, and see something happen.
Tell me about Taking Shakespeare, which John Murrell has written for you. How much input do you have into a part that is being written for you?
Absolutely none at all. I have known John for years. The last time I saw him, which was last year here at the Shaw Festival, we had dinner and he said he was writing this play for me. “How lovely,” I said. “Do send it to me as soon as it’s finished.” The next thing I knew I opened the Globe and Mail. There’s a picture of John Murrell with a play called Taking Shakespeare.
But you have read it now? What character do you play?
Yes, I’ve read it now. She’s an English professor with a great passion for Shakespeare and she takes this young man through Othello. Simply to show him what life is all about, really.
She’s an admirable character then.
Yes. As you get older … this is an old song which I don’t necessarily want to sing here, but at my age there are fewer and fewer parts available and John has written something that doesn’t have to be played by a woman in her 70s but it can be. She’s about to retire; this is her teaching swan song.
It’s exciting to do a play about teaching Shakespeare. Without being too precious about it, I’m running the conservatory and trying to figure ways to teach Shakespeare to younger actors. It’s exciting to delve into how you teach that kind of material to a young mind.
Would you rather be acting or directing?
My preference actually is to do both. I always find when I am doing one I think “Oh my god, if I was only doing the other it would be so much easier.” And then I do the other, and I think “Oh my lord, if I were only acting it would be so much simpler.” Each has made me better at the other thing.