'Her life became art': Martha Henry remembered for devotion to the stage

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STRATFORD, ONT. — Martha Henry, considered one of the greats of the Canadian stage, lived and breathed theatre up until her dying days.

The stalwart of the Stratford Festival died of cancer at her home in the southern Ontario town shortly after midnight Thursday – just 12 days after her final curtain call, organizers said. She was 83.

Over more than a half century in the spotlight, Henry was revered as the leading lady of Canadian theatre whose transcendent performances and artistic stewardship helped solidify the Stratford Festival's success into its seventh decade.

"It's everybody's loss that didn't get to see her," said Cynthia Dale, a fellow actor and friend. "She is the great Canadian actress, Martha Henry."

In her 47 seasons at the Stratford Festival, Henry performed in more than 70 productions and directed 14 more.

She also served as director of the festival's Birmingham Conservatory from 2007 to 2016, and mentored the next generation of artists as the director of the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction from 2017 to 2020.

Her acting repertoire ran the gamut from Shakespeare to David Mamet. Dale said Henry threw herself into every performance with the force of an "earthquake," embodying the character's full physicality.

"Every cell in her being, in her body, was alive and in the character. And you felt it at every moment watching her," said Dale, who performed alongside Henry in a 1986 production of "Pal Joey" at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre. "That energy will never go. She was such a force — is such a force."

Henry upheld this devotion to her craft in her final role as an old woman facing her mortality in Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women."

She received her cancer diagnosis not long before the pandemic shuttered the 2020 Stratford production, the festival said.

When shows resumed this summer, Henry used a walker throughout rehearsal and early performances, but about a month into the run in September, she moved into a wheelchair.

Even as her health deteriorated, Henry never let the audience in on the parallels between her character and her personal struggles, commanding the stage through her last performance on Oct. 9.

The festival said the show was filmed and it hopes to secure the rights to share it publicly.

Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino said Henry's tour-de-force farewell speaks to "the grit, dedication and craft" that fuelled her legendary stage career.

"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," Cimolino said Thursday in a release. "Her life became art."

— by Adina Bresge in Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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