After completing his recent run as the villainous Richard III, Hurt sent a parting gift of a bouquet of flowers to MTC artistic director Steven Schipper with a card that read, "Dear Steven, March, 2007, see ya. Love, William."
It is a reference to when Schipper will direct Hurt in the Bard's pastoral comedy As You Like It.
This casting news marks the first time that MTC -- which during Schipper's tenure has periodically attracted movie stars to glam up its playbills -- has been able to entice one of them to make a return appearance.
It was a one-off only occurrence here for Keanu Reeves in Hamlet (1995) and Judd Hirsch in Death of a Salesman (1997). Hurt obviously liked his experience in Winnipeg enough to promise to do it again.
"It feels to me like we've taken a step forward," says Schipper, during an interview. "It affirms that MTC provides a nurturing environment where artists can take risks. Other Hollywood stars have come to MTC but he's the first who's agreed to come back."
Richard III was the MTC season's top draw, playing to 23,137 people or 99.6 per cent of capacity. Hurt's name is also credited with pushing the season-ticket total to a record high of 17,363, smashing Keanu's Hamlet record by nearly 2,000 subscribers.
Schipper also counts Richard III as a critical success, although many did not relish director Guy Sprung's multi-era interpretation which climaxed with the king outfitted like the Tin Man being dispatched to hell by Coalition soldiers wielding flame-throwers. There also were grumblings from patrons unable to hear Hurt.
"It wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but the vast majority of feedback was very positive," Schipper says. "We at MTC felt the boldness and contemporary relevance went a long way toward keeping our audiences engaged.
"Some had difficulty hearing every word and for that I take full responsibility. I'm sure when William Hurt returns to our stage, that won't be a problem."
Hurt first raised the possibility of a return visit to MTC moments after performing a short scene for the media a few days before the April 17 opening. He huddled with Schipper on the side of the stage, heaped praise on the theatre and staff, and suggested that the right project could lure him back.
At the time, he was enthusiastic about reviving Moliere's Don Juan or Paddy Chayefsky's Marty, which was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Ernest Borgnine in 1955. Schipper opted to entice him with a title he was more passionate about and with which he could guarantee him a better experience.
Two days before the May 10 closing, the two went for a walk and Schipper pitched the American actor As You Like It and the role of Jaques, the malcontent who famously spouts the "all the world's a stage" homily about the seven ages of man. The proposal brought a huge smile from Hurt and after agreeing on the time frame, the two shook hands.
Again, MTC will hold a six-week rehearsal, which is Hurt's only condition for his participation.
"He seemed elated because the play is an excellent fit," Schipper says. "As William says, 'It's about everything.'"
As You Like It might have been slotted in earlier if MTC did not have another Shakespeare play tentatively set for its 2004-2005 playbill. Schipper prefers to program a Shakespeare every second year.
MTC is also talking to British playwright Ronald Harwood about coming to Winnipeg to direct The Dresser during the 2004-2005 season. In March, won an Oscar for his screenplay of the Holocaust movie The Pianist.