In memoriam: Martha Henry was a powerfully resonant force on stage

Not even looming death could constrain the Stratford Festival legend


The show must go on. And Martha Henry made sure that it did, even as she knew she was dying of cancer. She finished her run at the Stratford Festival as A in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women just 12 days before she died, adapting to her own deteriorating condition, first working with a walker and then taking to a wheelchair. She would not stop until the show came down.

Henry passed away at the age of 83 on October 21 at her home in Stratford, the festival confirmed in a statement.

You always remember your first time, and the first time I saw Twelfth Night was also the first time I witnessed a Henry performance. As Viola, she was formidable, charismatic and totally in command of the stage, her stature diminutive but her voice a powerfully resonant force. She would go on to act, direct and mentor at the Stratford Festival through 47 seasons.

She didn’t choose life in the theatre, the theatre chose her. She recalled that the first time she saw a stage play, the stage was “all she ever had in her head – ever.” She was born in Detroit but moved to Canada because, as she described it, any country that had a festival like Stratford was a country she wanted to live in.

She was so good so early on that as a member of the first cohort of young actors at the National Theatre School (NTS) she performed scenes for Stratford’s artistic director Michael Langham in 1962, whereupon he plucked her out of the troupe and offered her a role right away. To accept it, she’d have to leave the NTS, but the school gave her an early certificate, making her its first graduate. She went on to perform in more than 70 productions and directed 14 others. Along the way, among other things, she served on the board of the Canada Council for the Arts, won the Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award, three Gemini Awards and four Genies and became a Companion of the Order of Canada – and a legend.

She took a hiatus from the Stratford Festival on principle, after sharing the artistic directorship with three others – Urjo Kareda, Peter Moss and Pam Brighton – in the wake of Robin Phillips resignation in 1981. The honchos thought they’d found someone better in the person of English stage director John Dexter, which caused a major uproar in the Canadian arts community. The noise was so loud that immigration minister Lloyd Axworthy denied Dexter his work permit. Even when homegrown John Hirsch was appointed Henry did not run back into the arms of the festival but stayed away for years, during which time she directed plays at the Tarragon, Theatre Plus and the Citadel Theatre, among others, and was artistic director of the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, from 1988-94.

It was during her tenure there that I met her for the first time, a moment of terror that I, of course, have never forgotten. Because the Grand was committed to new playwrights writing from the margins, she programmed my small play A Fertile Imagination about two lesbians having a baby. When I first got word that the play would go up in the Studio Theatre at the Grand’s smaller theatre (now known as the Auburn) I was incredulous. I would love to report that our first encounter triggered a vibrant conversation about the work and the magic of theatre but, hopelessly star-struck at the play’s first reading, I don’t think I uttered a word.

Henry wore many hats as a theatre artist but she was first and foremost an actor. She could do anything, whether spewing hundreds of lines as Prospero in The Tempest, a role she played in 2018 at the age of 80, or letting silence do most of the talking as Edna, a profoundly dissatisfied housewife going out of her mind in the 1986 film Dancing In The Dark. Prospero had all the glitter, but Edna displayed a different kind of genius in a performer who could express the most profound emotions with a mere gesture or a steely gaze.

If there ever was an actor who could demonstrate the benefit of seeing a play for the fourth time, it was Henry. She returned to the Stratford troupe in 1995 to star in Long Day’s Journey Into Night as the highly dysfunctional Tyrone family’s morphine-addicted mother. It was a performance like no other, almost a jazz-like riff on desperation. Throughout the play, she held her hands in an arthritic fist that never stopped shaking. For over a decade she had a great run with Canada’s various independent theatres, but plainly, she was back where she belonged.

She feared nothing. The idea of taking on the role of Prospero basically scared the shit out of her, which she saw as the perfect reason to do it. When a bomb scare derailed the opening, sending audiences back to mope in our respective lodgings, undaunted Henry herded the troupe over to the Bruce Hotel for a smart drink. When the show finally opened, Henry proved spectacular and the gender flip created new nuances, transforming the play into a profound commentary on a mother’s relationship with her daughter.

Her looming death could not constrain her. She stared down her mortality by channelling Albee’s A, a 90-year-old woman looking back on her life, sometimes with anger, sometimes with pleasure. She’d slam her walker to the ground for emphasis and later in the run deploy her wheelchair as a weapon, both glorious responses to that stock bit of theatre advice: use it.

Yes, the show must go on. Now the shows will go on without her. But what a run it was.

@susangcole

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