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Saturday December 12, 2009

Her name was Goldie and she was luminous

Canada loses a serious actor and consummate stage comedienne who sparkled at Stratford and the Shaw Festival and gave generously of herself - always with a twinkle in her eye

At first glance, Marigold (Goldie) Semple might have been judged too elegant a woman - too gracious, altogether too beautiful - to be considered a comic actress. In fact, as legions of theatre directors will attest, she was the consummate stage comedienne, in addition to her well-known talents in more serious roles.

Her 30-year career, encompassing 17 sparkling seasons at the Shaw Festival and another memorable nine at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, elevated her to the very top echelon of the Canadian stage. One would be hard-pressed to find a single review that was critical of her work.

Among her more significant roles were Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Camille, Larita in Noel Coward's Easy Virtue, Rosemary in William Inge's Picnic, Desiree Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams's Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, as well as several major parts in plays by George Bernard Shaw.

She made her final appearance in Noel Coward's Brief Encounters this past summer at Shaw, one of several roles she took on for the season.

"You would have had to be an ox [to deliver] the energy that she pushed out into the audience," said her friend, actor Nicola Cavendish. "She pulled it up from the very bottom of her heels right up through her body... It was astounding. It was like her last hurrah, it really was. Only we didn't know it."

Semple had been cast in the role of Madame Ranyevskaya in Anton Chekov's The Cherry Orchard at the Shaw Festival for next season.

Cavendish, one of her best friends, called her Gold. "Others called her Goldiepops, or Goldilocks, but for me she was Gold. And she was gold. She was a magnet. You run into such people occasionally. You can't keep her eyes of them. She had such extraordinary bearing. Coarseness and crudity never sat well with her or on her, although she could play that."

Shaw artistic director Jackie Maxwell, who directed her in several productions over the past decade, says Semple tackled every part with enthusiasm, even the smallest roles.

"If you just looked at her, she was so beautiful that you'd never have thought she could do broad, absurdist comedy, but she could do it. She could be quite outrageous. She loved doing it. And it surprised people."

Maxwell recalled a rehearsal this past spring for Hands Across the Sea, by Noel Coward, in which Semple was playing a character (Clare Wedderburn) who has had too much to drink. And the script called for her to ask for another martini and "Goldie spontaneously rolled her glass across the floor ... You bet that stayed in."

For Stratford's general director, Antoni Cimolino, who acted with Semple in Richard the Third, "Goldie was simply luminous. She shed light, off stage and on. She just had that sparkle. So intelligent, so witty. Her eyes were huge and warm, the mirror of her soul."

In 1993, she appeared in a Robin Phillips production of Shakespeare's King John. The New York Times, reviewing the play, said "as Constance, the mother of a child with a fatal claim to John's throne, Goldie Semple is superb, a fierce portrait of patrician poise unravelling beneath the conflicting burdens of maternal ambition and maternal solicitude." Toward the play's end, Constance must mourn the murder of her son, Arthur.

"It's a very demanding role, and she spared nothing," recalled Cimolino. "She'd prepare back stage half an hour for every performance. I don't know where she found the strength. She came on stage with this profound sadness and you could see the tears. You could see her living the experience."

Former Shaw artistic director Christopher Newton, who directed Semple in several productions, recalls a different aspect of her core character - her generosity. "Goldie was generous about everything. She gave generously of her self, to everyone, to her fellow actors, to her community. Playing with her was so easy, because she gave you so much."

Newton said Semple usually came to the first rehearsal well prepared in general terms, but never with a sense that she had answers to everything. "She wanted to use the process to make lots of decisions.

"When she played Larita in Easy Virtue, I remember once in rehearsal that she just stopped at one point and enumerated all the props she had to deal with in the scene - her purse, her cigarette package, the cigarette she wanted to light, the lighter, her hat, her gloves, etc. It was a lovely moment, because she wanted to make a list in her head of exactly what she had to do and in exactly what order she would do it, to make it as natural as possible.

Semple was memorable in other ways as well, Newton recalls. "We used to have our opening night parties downstairs at the Royal George Theatre and it has that long circular staircase coming down and all you had to see was the legs to know Goldie had arrived."

She was also widely known as one of the finest jam makers in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where she lived with her husband of 33 years, Shaw festival actor Lorne Kennedy, and their 14-year-old daughter Madeline. She typically gave jars of homemade jam to her fellow actors on opening nights - "everyone looked forward to those," says Maxwell - and gave jam-making lessons to anyone who was interested.

"She was quite tough in these sessions," Newton recalls. "It had to be made just the right way."

The actor Thom Allison, who played her lover in A Little Night Music last year at Shaw, posted a tribute to Semple on his blog, saying "A light has dimmed on this earth today. Actress, wife, mother, angel Goldie Semple has left us ... She was one of the most generous human beings and actresses I've ever had the pleasure to be near, let alone work with. She brought such joy and peace to everyone whose lives she touched. But there was always that twinkle in her eye."

Allison recalled seeing "Goldie give some of the most astonishing performances. I saw her fiery, longing Kate in Richard Monette's famous Taming of the Shrew; her sensuous, temperamental Cleopatra; her terrifying Tamara in Titus Andronicus. I worshipped her work.... I had been awed by her sweetness, her availability, her immensity of talent.

"Never dreaming I'd have the chance to share a stage with her. Then last year, it happened. ...To watch Goldie play Desiree every show was a lesson in simplicity, grace and ... humility.

"Rarely do you find someone who is so loved, respected and revered by so many people where it is all worth it. She was one of a kind. A jewel in this industry, this life. Her like will not come around again for a long time. Rest in Peace, Divine One."

Born in Richmond, B.C., the only daughter of a steel fabrication businessman, Semple studied theatre at the University of British Columbia in the late 60s and early 70s in a class that also produced the likes of Nicola Cavendish, Brent Carver, John Gray, Larry Lillo, and her husband, Kennedy.

Her friend Cavendish recalls how "the two of us would hitchhike to Richmond and steal her father's LTD from the garage and troll around all weekend."

With Kennedy, Semple did postgraduate work at the Bristol Old Vic in England, then returned to Winnipeg to perform at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. Later, she appeared at the Vancouver Playhouse, the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, Alberta Theatre Projects, and Montreal's Segal Centre, among many other venues. During her career, she played opposite most of Canada's leading male actors, including the late William Hutt, Colm Feore and Brian Bedford.

Semple was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and fought it off. Last month, she was feeling well enough to take a vacation. The family went to Italy, biking in Lucca and visiting Venice. She took a sharp turn for the worse shortly after returning to Canada. The cancer had metastasized to her bones, liver and stomach.

Cavendish, rehearsing for a play in Vancouver, jumped on a plane last week to see her. "They told me, her caregivers, that if I loved her, I should keep a respectful distance, but I went anyway. And I'm so glad I did. She was weakening physically, but the life force was huge. There was light behind her eyes and she had the ability not just to connect, but to hook me into her."

At one point, Cavendish tried to lift Semple higher up on the bed, and "my scarf got caught under her body. 'Oh,' she said. 'I like your scarf.'... 'Well, it's mine,' I said, playfully. 'You can't have it.' And she picked it up and pulled it toward her and then I tugged back, and we had a little tug of war. And she had the strength to laugh with me. And then I heaved her up the bed, and my nose was an inch from her nose. It's funny how life comes down to these simplest of things."

There was no discussion of the illness. "I believe that Goldie Semple made a decision not to acknowledge to anybody except herself what she was dealing with," said Cavendish. "With the help of many people, she kept the monster, cancer, down, aided enormously by her dedication to insisting it not be the topic of consideration and affect her interior colour. She did that, I think, primarily for her daughter, so that she might be as light and carefree as possible until it was time. And she succeeded. The night Goldie died, Madeline had been singing with friends in a Christmas concert."

Others might measure Semple's success in life by the many landmark achievements of her theatrical career. "But for me," says Cavendish, "it was her performance as a mother that was the epitome of success. She was a great baker, a great cook, a great homemaker and a real down-to-earth person. But she just had this light, this gift, and when you were with her, you knew you were with something magnetic."

Marigold (Goldie) Semple Kennedy

Goldie was born, Dec. 11, 1952. She died, Dec. 9 2009, of complications of breast cancer, two days before her 57th birthday. She leaves her husband, Lorne Kennedy and her daughter, Madeline.

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