Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star theatre critic
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival said “thank you” to Dame Maggie Smith on Monday night, 35 years after her talent and star quality raised the theatre company to dazzling heights in the late 1970s.
She was honoured with the Festival’s Legacy Award, presented to her by Christopher Plummer, in a star-studded ceremony at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.
“There may be a lot of glittering events in Toronto tonight,” said event chair Barry Avrich, alluding to TIFF, “but this is the only one with two Oscar winners and a Dame.”
Jian Ghomeshi, the host of CBC’s Q morning radio program, emceed the evening, introducing the three artistic directors of the festival — past, present and future — Robin Phillips, Des McAnuff and Antoni Cimolino.
Smith was already an Oscar-winning star when Robin Phillips invited her to join the company in 1976. She returned for three more seasons, making her last appearance in 1980. In her four seasons at Stratford, Dame Maggie gave some of the most memorable performances in the Festival’s history, including Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Rosalind in As You Like It, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Mistress Overdone in Measure for Measure, Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, Titania/Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Lady Macbeth.
Monday night’s entertainment included Cynthia Dale singing “La Vie en Rose,” Brent Carver performing a bravura version of Jacques Brel’s “Jacky,” Ben Carlson offered a moving interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126 and Kyle Blair sweetly rendered selections from the score written by Bert Carrière for Smith’s production of As You Like It.
Her non-Shakespeare roles at Stratford were equally noteworthy: Masha in Three Sisters, The Actress in The Guardsman, Judith Bliss in Hay Fever, Amanda Prynne in Private Lives, Irina Arkadina in The Seagull and Millamant in The Way of the World.
Plummer hailed his colleague for “having invented the word ‘edge.’ Maggie had edge in spades. That made her famous, but she also had a huge heart and that made her great.”
Visibly touched by the ovation she was offered, Smith began by quipping about the video tribute that been shown of her career.
“Look on me as a warning to anyone who wants to go into film or theatre. Look how it ages you.”
But she concluded on a note of heartfelt sincerity: “Nothing has ever come up to the years I spent at Stratford and that’s the God’s honest truth.”
Smith is currently best known for her appearances as Minerva McGonnagall in the Harry Potter films and as The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham on the hit series, Downton Abbey.