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Festival Mourns Death of Peter Donaldson

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival sent out the following press release, stating that they were deeply saddened to learn of the death of actor Peter Donaldson on Saturday, January 8, 2011. Mr. Donaldson was to return to the Festival this year for his 25th season, playing Buckingham in Richard III and Marcus Andronicus in Titus Andronicus.

“Peter was the finest actor's actor,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino, who worked with Mr. Donaldson on many productions. “He was deeply admired for the conviction he brought to his work and the unsparing truth of his portrayals. He was versatile and able to give outstanding performances in modern plays, musicals and classics. But his home was Shakespeare.

“He spent a lifetime at the Stratford Festival and gave us a world of great performances. His Timon of Athens made a seldom-performed part unforgettable and was a tour de force of virtuosity. But this was only one of many brilliant performances at Stratford.”

Mr. Donaldson was last seen on the Stratford stage in 2008, when he played Rufio in Caesar and Cleopatra and Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, both under the direction of Artistic Director Des McAnuff, and Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost, under the direction of Michael Langham, the Festival’s artistic director from 1956 to 1967.

“I was looking forward immensely to Peter’s return to our company for what was to have been his 25th season, and I am shocked and saddened by his untimely passing,” says Mr. McAnuff.

“He was one of those rare actors who excelled at everything he touched, able to sound the depths of tragic emotion even as he delighted us with his flair for wryly deadpan comedy. No one who enjoyed his stellar performances at Stratford and elsewhere could have doubted that even greater triumphs lay ahead of him, and our sorrow is all the deeper when we think of the King Lear or the Prospero we might someday have seen him play but now have lost forever.

“Peter leaves those of us at the Festival with a tremendous sense of responsibility because we know he held this theatre in the highest possible esteem.”

Mr. Donaldson was born and raised in Midland, Ontario, and attended performances at the Stratford Festival as a high-school student. A graduate of the University of Guelph, Mr. Donaldson began at the Festival in 1977 as a journeyman actor, playing Potpan in Romeo and Juliet and the Page to Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well. He remained for three seasons, and then moved on to study in New York under Uta Hagen, Stella Adler and Olympia Dukakis, and to perform at a number of Canadian theatres, including the Shaw Festival, Toronto Free Theatre and London’s Grand Theatre.

After a single season at Stratford in 1982, Mr. Donaldson returned in 1986, growing into one of the Festival’s most versatile and admired leading men. Over 12 seasons, he gave such memorable performances as Jaques in As You Like It, both Kent and Edgar in productions of King Lear, Guy Thompson in Homeward Bound, Boy Staunton in World of Wonders and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, opposite Lucy Peacock’s Katherina.

One of his many stand-out performances came in 1994, when he was part of a remarkable ensemble, playing James Tyrone Jr., in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with William Hutt, Martha Henry, Tom McCamus and Martha Burns, under the direction of Diana Leblanc. He reprised the role in a film version, winning a Genie for Best Supporting Actor. After that performance, he appeared in Atom Egoyan’s film The Sweet Hereafter.

From 1995 to 1999, he worked on the television series Emily of New Moon, in which he played Ian Bowles opposite his wife, Sheila McCarthy, who played Aunt Laura. They had also performed together on stage, in the Grand Theatre’s 1992 production of Norm Foster’s Wrong For Each Other.

In 2001, Mr. Donaldson again returned to Stratford to play Malvolio in Twelfth Night (directed by Mr. Cimolino), George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Trigorin in The Seagull. The following year, he was joined on stage by Ms McCarthy for the Festival’s 50th season. They performed as husband and wife in two productions, playing Mr. and Mrs. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera and Sir Percival Blakeney and Marguerite in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Aside from The Threepenny Opera, Mr. Donaldson’s foray into musical theatre, included playing Harry the Horse in 1990’s Guys and Dolls (a production that featured Ms McCarthy as Adelaide), Horace Vandergelder in 2005’s Hello Dolly!, again opposite Lucy Peacock, and the Mysterious Man and Narrator in Into the Woods that same year.

Mr. Donaldson’s position as one of the finest classical actors of his generation was solidified with such significant performances as Mark Antony in the 2003 production of Antony and Cleopatra, featuring Diane D’Aquila as Cleopatra; his unforgettable portrayal of Timon of Athens in 2004, truly a piece of theatre history; Benedick in 2006’s Much Ado About Nothing, once again opposite Lucy Peacock; and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird in 2007.

“Peter's work and career reminded me of William Hutt,” says Mr. Cimolino. “Like Bill, in his mid-life Peter was now coming into the best, deepest and richest part of his talent. We will not know exactly what we have lost from his sad early passing. We are only left to wonder and mourn.”

Mr. Donaldson died of lung cancer at age 57 in hospital in Toronto, surrounded by his family and friends. He is survived by his wife, Sheila McCarthy, and daughters Mackenzie and Drew. His loss is deeply felt by members of his extended theatre family, who cherish him as a remarkable talent and friend.

Details of a funeral and memorial celebration will be announced at a later date.

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