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Donald Sutherland in Shakespeare’s The Tempest at Hart House, March 1957
Photo courtesy of U of T Archives

Shakespearean Simpleton

Donald Sutherland performs in Hart House Theatre’s The Tempest

While Donald Sutherland is starring in The Hunger Games as President Snow, the nefarious ruler of Panem, one of his first roles was far less foreboding: In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he played Stephano (centre), the drunken, buffoonish butler who, along with Caliban (left) and court jester Trinculo, ineptly schemes to murder the usurped Duke of Milan.

The play, staged in March 1957 with a ticket price of $1.50, was Sutherland’s fifth Hart House Theatre production. The critical reaction was enthusiastic: a Globe and Mail review noted that the 21-year-old Sutherland “illumes the low comedy scenes with a benign, blurry glow” while the Star lauded his “extremely humorous portrayal of a drunk” (although quibbled that there was “a bit too much lisping”).

Sutherland (BA 1958 VIC) wasn’t the only well-known actor to emerge from Hart House Theatre in this golden era: others included William Hutt, David Gardner, Charmion King and Kate Reid. A creative force named Robert Gill had served as artistic director of the theatre from 1946 to 1966, and was revered for encouraging and developing young talent.

Today, the theatre itself is undergoing a renaissance, both creatively (it hired its first artistic director in more than 30 years, Jeremy Hutton, in 2010) and physically (renovations are ongoing). Hutton is carrying on the Hart House tradition of nurturing a love of acting in students. In a Globe and Mail interview in 1993, Sutherland remembered the thrill of being a young student actor in front of an audience for the first time: “When I walked on stage, everybody laughed. And when I left the stage, they applauded. That immediate response, vindication or vilification…nothing is more stimulating.”

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