Gender-bending Shakespeare

Faithful readers may remember my praise for Martha Henry’s performance this season at Stratford as Prospero in “The Tempest.” Imagine my pleasure to see her interviewed Monday night at McMaster University along with Seana McKenna. The two actors appeared as part of The Socrates Project, a series of cultural events running until next summer, sponsored by L. R. “Red” Wilson, a businessman and former McMaster chancellor.

The two women were interviewed by CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel. McKenna talked the most, but Henry was the best. In response to a question about how she got into acting, Henry told of owning a dress that made her look like a fairy when she was seven. Henry heard that the Brownies were planning to put on a play, so she joined and got the part. She had no interest in campfires, badges or knots, just performing.

The second reason was even more revealing. Henry’s parents had divorced, but she didn’t know that, and was sent to live with her grandmother. There, in a trunk, she found two plays and enjoyed taking one part and then the other. More important than be being able to choose either character, Henry said that the world of plays meant she knew how things turned out, something that real life did not allow.

The evening was mostly about women playing men in Shakespeare. McKenna, who was Julius Caesar this year at Stratford, cited Lear’s famous diatribe about how the gods should prevent daughter Goneril from ever having children. Imagine, said McKenna, the even greater power of that same speech if given by a female Lear as mother to daughter. But of all the sights and sounds on stage at McMaster, the most memorable was the beatific face of Martha Henry who, at eighty, looks like she has found inner peace. Nobody had to write that role for her.

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