Three Stratford stars take on new challenges

By Paul Knowles

For all three women, the Stratford Festival stage has become their home. Any discussion of the most important figures in the history of the Stratford has to include the names Martha Henry, Seana McKenna and Lucy Peacock.

The Festival is in its 65th year; 2018 is Henry’s 44th season at Stratford. Peacock has been on stage for 31 seasons; McKenna, for 27.

You might think that, having set roots this deep and with experience this vast, these actors would be able to settle into some comfortable roles and take their professional life a little easy. You would be wrong.

This year, all three have taken on challenging roles that are smashing stereotypes and engendering endless discussion about gender fluidity. Because this season, all three are playing male roles, or roles usually associated with men. Henry, at age 80, has the daunting task of playing Prospero in “The Tempest”, a part previously owned by such noted male actors as William Hutt and Christopher Plummer.

Seana McKenna. Photography by Clay Stang – The Garden.

McKenna, who is no stranger to playing male roles, is the titular character in “Julius Caesar.” And Peacock plays Satan in “Paradise Lost”.

These are just some of the twists in this year’s gender-bending season put together by artistic director Antoni Cimolino, who also directs Henry in “The Tempest”.

Both Martha Henry and Seana McKenna agree that playing an identifiably male role is a significant challenge. In fact, asked about her biggest acting challenge, Henry was unequivocal. She told “Forever Young,” “I would say this is the biggest challenge I’ve ever had, and at my time of life…. This is not a part I ever, ever thought I would have played.  But Antoni Cimolino is a hard man to turn down.” There is a perfect symmetry to Henry’s turn as Prospero – her first-ever role at Stratford was as Miranda, opposite Hutt, in “The Tempest”, in 1962.

Martha Henry. Photography by Clay Stang – The Garden.

It was the Stratford Festival that drew American-born Henry to move to Canada – but not, initially, to work there. She says, “I came to Canada because of the Stratford Festival. A country that produced this was the country I wanted to live in.” So she moved to Toronto, seeking work as an actress, and met a director who, three years later, invited her to play Miranda on the Stratford stage. She has since appeared in 65 productions, including 30 Shakespeare plays.

“There is no other place in the world that’s better to work. I was incredibly lucky,” says Henry.

It isn’t all luck – Henry continues to work incredibly hard at her craft. In order to be at her best on stage, she sees a physiotherapist once a week, an osteopath bi-weekly, an Alexander Technique teacher at least once a week, and a voice teacher for half an hour before each show.

“I’m hoping to function at an optimum level,” says Henry. According to the reviews, she is achieving that goal.

Cimolino is keenly aware of the importance of the three actors to his Festival. He says, “Martha, Lucy and Seana have made an enormous and vibrant contribution to the Stratford Festival. Their insistence on excellence, through hard work and personal self-development, has made them compelling examples to generations of female artists. Their leadership within our Festival has made our work more nuanced, our portrayals more compassionate and our work relationships more profound.”

Lucy Peacock. Photography by Clay Stang – The Garden.

Seana McKenna recalls her first exposure to the Festival – “I saw my first Shakespeare play at the Stratford Festival, coming on a yellow school bus when I was 14. I saw ‘The Merchant of Venice’. And that was it!”

In a previous interview with “Forever Young”, England native Lucy Peacock echoed Henry’s words: “How did I get so lucky? [The Festival]  has loved me, nurtured me, helped me grow.” Peacock has appeared in more than 60 Stratford productions, including three this season alone – “Paradise Lost”, “The Tempest”, and “Coriolanus”.

McKenna’s early stage career saw her come and go from Stratford. She’s been a fixture at the Festival for the past 20 consecutive years – a stability that she admits is unusual and very fortunate for an actor. “Stratford has always been home for me,” she says, but she still performs elsewhere in the off-season, including a role as King Lear this year. In all, she has appeared in 130 plays, 54 of them at Stratford.

Her 2018 casting as Julius Caesar has drawn a lot of media attention, but McKenna contends it is not her toughest gender-bending role (that was Richard III, in 2011, she says), nor is it her most challenging role this season. That, she says, is her role as Mary Cavan Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. “I feel so blessed to be able to do this play,” she says. “It’s O’Neill’s masterpiece. And I have wanted to play that role since high school.”

With a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour, she says that “I’m also really enjoying ‘Julius Caesar’,” but points out that her character, after all, doesn’t survive Act I.

McKenna adds, though, that Caesar is “the first time I’m playing a ‘man-man’.” Her role as Lear changed the character to be a woman, and with Richard III, she says, “I didn’t care if you thought he was a man or a woman or transgender… there was no need to transform myself into some kind of vigorous, strong, athletic male.” With Caesar, her goal, she says is “to embody power and entitlement.”

Nevertheless, she adds, Caesar is “not my biggest challenge, not the way Richard III was. That’s the titular role, and he occupies most of the stage time. He is such a complex character.”

She reflects on the challenges inherent on some other parts – “Mother Courage, singing and pulling the cart… and Medea.” She adds that the most challenging roles “are also some of my favourite roles.”

All three leading actors admit that the stage seduced them at a very early age.

Peacock’s family has a multi-generational acting tradition.

Henry says, “I didn’t actually choose to become an actor – that was something I wanted to do when I was five years old. I joined the Brownie Scouts when I was 7 because they were doing a play.”

Her devotion to the stage lapsed briefly in her teens, when she decided to be a nurse. That lasted “about two weeks,” she says, and she instantly returned to her first love. Her work on stage has earned her the honour as Companion of the Order of Canada.

McKenna says she has “done theatre ever since I was a child.” But in university, she was torn between the academic side – she still loves literature and history – and theatre. Theatre fans are delighted that theatre won out, and her contribution to the arts led to her 2018 appointment to the Order of Canada.

Asked what she would have been, had she not opted for life as an actor, McKenna laughs, and then delivers a superb line: “I would have been a lawyer who said they could have been an actor.”