When Martha Henry was playing Miranda in The Tempest in 1962, her debut at the Stratford Festival, she never looked over at her father, Prospero – played by the soon-to-be-legendary stage actor William Hutt – and imagined that one day she might be the one holding the magic staff.
But 56 years later, we are, to borrow Miranda’s words, in a brave new world – where female actors playing male characters in Shakespeare is no longer a novelty but normal at classical theatres in the English-speaking world.
Henry – with 43 seasons at Stratford as actor or director or, for a few short weeks in 1980, co-artistic director under her belt – is now taking on the part of Prospero, which not only required major shifts to happen within her industry, but also a personal U-turn in her ideas about how her favourite playwright should be staged.
“Even as late as two years ago, when [Stratford Festival artistic director] Antoni [Cimolino] first mentioned this to me, I said, ‘Oh no no, I don’t believe in that,’” she says, in an early spring interview in the backstage cafeteria at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont. “It always seemed to me that Shakespeare knew the way men think and he knew the way women think and he didn’t mix them up.
“I short-changed Shakespeare,” Henry says now – and so, at the age of 80, she is about to make a major Shakespearean comeback that may also be her final bow with the Bard.
The Tempest is a play associated with farewells to the stage – and widely viewed as Shakespeare’s last script (even if he did likely co-author a couple more afterward). The sorcerer Prospero – an exiled duke who conjures an elaborate series of revenges for his enemies on his enchanted island, only to forgive them in the end – is sometimes seen as the great playwright’s stand-in, and the role, at the Stratford Festival in particular, has been played by an actor near the end of his career in the classics.
Prospero was Hutt’s final role at Stratford (his fourth time playing it) before he died in 2007 – and Christopher Plummer said goodbye to Shakespeare, though not acting, when he played the role there at age 80 in 2010.
The Tempest ends with Prospero breaking his staff, drowning his magic books – and, in a metatheatrical epilogue, asking the audience to applaud to release him from the play: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”
It was the first speech Henry learned when she starting preparing for the role – which she will be playing as a woman, a duchess rather than a duke, requiring a few minor changes to the text – but she stayed away from it for a long time in rehearsal.
Does the moment feel like her own epilogue, not just the character’s?
“I’m waiting to see what the audience thinks about it,” says Henry, who has arthritis in her back and has been working with a coach to try to straighten up as much a possible for the role. “But I am 80. There aren’t going to be many more of these.”
E.B. Smith, a Stratford company member now in his eighth season who counts Henry as a mentor, says he gets “a bit misty” every day in rehearsals. “Prospero is at the end of something and it’s sometimes hard to keep that out of the room with regards to Martha,” he says. “To see her wrestle with this character, at once all-powerful and very consciously frail, it’s beautiful.”
Forging a path for women
The story of Martha Henry’s journey through theatre is more than a personal one – it’s the story of one of the first women to have a life-long career in professional theatre in this country.
Born Martha Buhs in Detroit, Henry – whose surname is a stage name she adopted during her first marriage, to actor Donnelly Rhodes, whose real last name was Henry –first visited the Stratford Festival as a teenager in 1957. She vividly recalls seeing Plummer’s Hamlet, then sitting cross-legged in the back of the family station wagon on the way back across the border, poring over her collected works of Shakespeare, trying to figure out how the actor had made these strange words in an odd order “sound like talking.”
She would later move to Canada instead of New York after university because, as she has often said: “I wanted to be in a country that could create something like the Stratford Festival.”
Since becoming the very first graduate from Canada’s National Theatre School – getting her diploma earlier than the rest of her inaugural class after she landed her role in The Tempest at Stratford – Henry has created new theatrical trajectories in this country.
Seana McKenna, a Stratford star a generation younger, first met the actress when she returned to the National Theatre School as an instructor when her second husband Douglas Rain (best known as the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey) ran the NTS’s English section in the 1970s – and recalls Henry as “stunning and beautiful and exotic,” smoking in class, then wafting the smoke away from her face with her hand.
“She and other actresses of that generation proved that a life in the theatre was possible for a woman in Canada – and so there were footsteps in the snow,” says McKenna, who went on to have a deep relationship with Henry off and on the stage.
But those footsteps followed a narrower path for women than men when it came to performing in classical theatre for a long time. Twenty-four at the time of her Stratford debut, Henry believes she “never really fit that idea of the really, really young ingénue.” So the actor with the famously sonorous voice and emphatic articulation – she still teaches young actors that there’s an H in “what” – never played Ophelia or Juliet, although she did play Cordelia and Desdemona, the tragic young heroines who are killed, rather than take their own lives.
Henry’s most acclaimed Shakespearean performances came during the years that Robin Phillips ran Stratford, from 1975 to 1980. The moment where her Isabella in Measure for Measure splashed cold water on her face after an encounter with Angelo has become legendary, while audiences who were there to witness her Lady Anne in Richard III remain struck by it. Recalls McKenna: “I still remember her voice going through three octaves on one word: VIL-AII-NN!”
All during that period where she came to be known as the “first lady of the Canadian stage,” Henry knew and accepted that a woman’s acting career based on Shakespeare would eventually dim – and began to forge her second career as a director. “I knew when I got to be a certain age, there wouldn’t be as many parts available for me,” Henry says – and, indeed, over the past decade, audiences have only been able to see Henry in smaller, supporting roles in Shakespeare at Stratford – as Queen Margaret in Richard III in 2011, or the Countess of Rossillion in All’s Well That Ends Well in 2008.
Even during that Richard III – a groundbreaking one at Stratford, as it starred McKenna in the lead role – Henry remained skeptical of women playing male roles in Shakespeare.
But in rereading The Tempest “over and over” in Stratford last year, she began to see a new side to Shakespeare – as she had 60 years earlier in the back of that station wagon headed back to Michigan. “He had written a person that indeed had male characteristics, but there were things about the part that I realized were completely female when looked at through my eyes,” she says. “It was still the same words, but it could have a different lens and I thought, ’Isn’t that astonishing.’ ”
And then when Henry went to see McKenna’s Lear – played as a queen, rather than a king – this winter in Toronto, it all came together in her mind. “Seana and [director] Graham [Abbey] had transformed that play into a play about a woman with three daughters,” she says, with a sense of wonder. “It was the same play, but a different prism – a different look in.
“And so I thought: ‘Yeah. You can do this.’ ”
Before beginning to rehearse her Prospero, though, she did send a message to the late Bill Hutt: “Okay, Bill, don’t smite me with a lightning bolt!”
Henry recalls Hutt as “very good” in the role in his first go-around in 1962 – but for her, Hutt only emerged as a true stage star the following season at Stratford when he played a camp Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida. “That was a performance that was astonishing –and I think a lot of it was because Bill was gay and he wasn’t afraid to allow that to show in that part,’ says Henry, who was Cressida in the production.
This was in 1963 – and an audacious move at the time. It also illustrates one of the strange paradoxes of acting as a profession – that whether a performer is speaking in verse or naturalistic dialogue, the job can be just as much about showing yourself as it can be about disguising yourself.
This was at the root of Henry’s long-standing aversion to playing men in Shakespeare –but it’s also linked to why, during her recently completed decade running Stratford Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory for young classical actors, she came to be a champion of colour-conscious casting rather than colour-blind casting. “I always hated the phrase colour-blind, because I don’t know any actor who wants to be seen with blind eyes,” Henry says.
E.B. Smith, who gave a great turn as Dr. Jim Bayliss in Henry’s acclaimed 2016 colour-conscious production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, says Henry was willing to have the discussions about race and representation in the rehearsal room that other younger directors he’s worked with have evaded. “As much as youth can be audacious and activist and forward-thinking, youth can also tend to be scared of having tough conversations,” the actor says. “Martha is infinitely interrogative of what’s happening now in the zeitgeist – and interested in how to mesh that with tradition.”
In terms of the zeitgeist, Henry says she’s “very glad” to see the #MeToo movement sweeping through the arts in the United States and Canada. “A lot of the horror that’s been exposed recently – Cosby, Weinstein – a lot of that was simply taken for granted when I was young,” she says.
In one of her early jobs, in summer stock, Henry recalls how she kept waiting and waiting for a shared dressing room to clear out in order to change into her costume. An older male actor finally looked over at her and said: “Sweetheart, are you waiting for us to leave?” She turned bright red and mumbled something in response – and the man simply laughed at her and said, “You better get used to it.”
“And so I found a corner somewhere and I changed my clothes. And I got used to it,” Henry says.
Henry recalls when men in the business came on to women without imagining any repercussions – and says she encountered other forms of casual sexism in the workplace that she didn’t take too seriously. “[The late Australian actor] Graeme Campbell called me doll all his life, all the time he was here,” she says. “It annoyed me. Every so often, I’d say, ‘I’m not your doll, I’m not your baby,’ but he would just laugh.”
Perhaps that’s why Henry has now – behind the scenes – seriously taken up the cause of changing the words used on Stratford’s call sheets, backstage documents that traditionally list male actors as Mr. and female actors as Miss.
“Now with the gender-fluidity issue, there are people who don’t want to be identified as Miss or Mr. or even Ms. or Mrs.,” Henry says. “It’s now 2018, last time I looked, and maybe it’s time we kind of looked at ourselves and decided how we want to address each other internally.”
One wonders what the Stratford Festival would be like today if Henry had continued to lead the company with three other artists back in 1980 – rather than being swiftly jettisoned by the board of directors at the time, creating a crisis that nearly killed the company and led to her years in exile from Stratford, running the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. The festival has still never had a female artistic director for more than a season: Marti Maraden sharing the role with Des McAnuff and Don Shipley in 2008, before McAnuff took sole control.
But, looking back, Henry seems content with her career and does not wish her sector’s attitudes, or her own, had changed more quickly: She regrets not having played Juliet, but doesn’t think she had a Hamlet in her. She’s focused now on enjoying her rediscovery of The Tempest’s enchanted isle, with a female sorcerer raising her daughter in control of it.
“Prospero starts out with hatred and revenge and desperation, and a feeling of having been put upon and struggling through adversity and coming out on top and wanting to say to those people who hurt her: I’ll show you,” Henry says.
“And then Shakespeare takes you by the hand and leads you through that and says: ‘You can’t live that way.’ Yes, you can make a tempest. Yes, you can boil people’s brains or do nasty things to people. But what does it do to you?”
The Tempest runs at the Stratford Festival to Oct. 26.