Canadian theatre legend Martha Henry dead at 83

Actor, director and Canadian theatre giant Martha Henry has died at 83, Stratford Festival has confirmed. Henry was a staple at the festival, and performed there just 12 days ago in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women.

Stratford mainstay performed at the festival just 12 days ago in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women

Martha Henry stars as Prospero in The Tempest at the Stratford Festival in 2018. The actor died at age 83. (David Hou/Stratford Festival)

Canadian theatre giant and Stratford Festival mainstay Martha Henry has died, the festival confirmed in an email to CBC News.

She died from cancer in her Stratford, Ont., home just after midnight, surrounded by her family, festival organizers said. It was just 12 days after she gave her final performance in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women at the festival.

"Our hearts are shattered," artistic director Antoni Cimolino was quoted as saying in a news release.

"The name Martha Henry is synonymous with artistry, intelligence and beauty. As an actor, her performances became the stuff of legend.... 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." 

Martha Henry was born in Detroit in 1938, moving to Canada upon graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Feb. 17, 1959. 

After studying at the National Theatre School of Canada, she quickly became a staple of the Stratford Festival.

Her first role at the festival was soon after, in a 1962 production of The Tempest — though she performed in all three plays the festival put on that year. In The Tempest, she played Miranda opposite William Hutt in the lead as Prospero. 

She went on to star in over 30 Shakespeare plays, along with numerous contemporary productions, and made her directorial debut with Brief Lives in 1980, starring her then-husband Douglas Rain.

Martha Henry appears as Lady Macduff, alongside Donald Shipley who portrays her son, in a 1962 production of Macbeth at the Stratford Festival. Henry debuted at the festival that year, starring in all three plays the festival showed. (Peter Smith/Stratford Festival)

She later married actor Rod Beattie in 1989, and acted alongside him in plays such as MacbethTwelfth Night and Henry VIII. Then, nearly 60 years after she began her Stratford career with the play, she returned to The Tempest in 2018.

This time though, instead of playing Miranda, she took on the lead role of Prospero. 

"I thought, 'Now listen,'" she answered when asked why she decided to take a male lead role

"'This scares you, doesn't it?' And I had to admit that yes, this scares me quite a lot. And then I thought, 'Well then if it scares you, well then you have to do it.'"

WATCH | Martha Henry takes on The Tempest

'If it scares you, then you have to do it:' Martha Henry takes on The Tempest

5 years ago
Duration 2:39
Martha Henry and Stratford Festival head Antoni Cimolino on putting the celebrated, veteran actor onstage as Prospero in The Tempest.

Outside of the theatre, Henry had an illustrious career in both film and television. For her work, she would eventually earn five Genie Awards, three Gemini Awards, two Betty Mitchell Awards and seven honorary doctorates — alongside becoming a Companion of the Order of Canada and recipient of the Governor General's Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Her last play at Stratford, Three Tall Women, is a contemporary play written by American playwright Edward Albee about his adoptive mother.

In a recent interview with the Toronto Star, Henry said she had to use two canes to walk onstage in another play just months earlier, and first relied on a walker, then a wheelchair for Three Tall Women due to nerve issues in her leg. At the time, she said she was being cared for at home by her daughter. 

That final performance was on Oct. 9, and festival organizers say it was filmed and they hope to secure the rights to share it publicly. 

The festival also said a memorial for Henry will be held "at an appropriate time." In a statement, Mirvish Productions said it will dim the marquee lights in all Mirvish theatres at curtain time tonight in Henry's honour. For Mirvish, Henry starred in the 2004 play Copenhagen, which played at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre. 


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