chapter  3
13 Pages

Judi Dench: Stanley Wells


Judi Dench stands along with three other great Dames – Ellen Terry, Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft – in the line of women performers of Shakespeare over the past century. As an older contemporary of Dame Judi, I have been able to see many of her performances, some of them several times, and have reviewed some for the press. I have taken part in discussions with her before groups of students and members of the general public, and I have had the privilege of being able to talk to her informally about her work. She is modest, self-deprecating and private, not given to theorizing about her professional activities, or indeed to talking much about herself. Her intelligence is great but it is intuitive rather than analytical. She has written little about her approach to her art. There are some published interviews, and she is named as the author of a delightful if anecdotal essay, ‘A Career in Shakespeare’, published in 1996 (it was I believe transcribed and edited from an interview by Professor Russell Jackson). And though popular biographies and a celebratory volume – Darling Judi, edited by John Miller, 2004 – which includes illuminating essays by practitioners with whom she has worked, such as Peter Hall, Gregory Doran, Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn have been published, I know of only one extended study of her as a Shakespeare actress, the excellent final chapter of Russ McDonald’s book Look to the Lady: Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, and Judi Dench on the Shakespearean Stage (2005). There are also, besides the usual reviews in newspapers and periodicals, longer studies of individual productions in which she has appeared including a chapter on John Barton’s Twelfth Night in my Royal Shakespeare: Studies of Four Major Productions at Stratford-upon-Avon (1977) and Tirzah Lowen’s Peter Hall Directs ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (1990), which gives a detailed, day-by-day account of the production in rehearsal. Judi Dench developed an interest in the theatre as a child. She had ambitions as a

ballet dancer, and saw school performances of Shakespeare given by her elder brother Jeffery, who also became a professional actor. As a schoolgirl she played her first Titania, as well as Ariel in The Tempest and the Queen in Richard II, and she took part in the York Mystery Plays, for which her mother was wardrobe mistress. At first, however, she wanted to be a stage designer, and enrolled at an art school in her home town of York with this in mind. Still uncertain about a career, she followed her brother as a student at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London where, after a shaky start, she graduated with a first class degree and won a

gold medal as outstanding student of her year. Already she had worked with Cicely Berry as voice trainer, as she was to continue to do especially in her years with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her debut performances as Ophelia at the Old Vic in 1957 were harshly criticized in the press: Richard Findlater called it a debacle. But she was learning fast. In an interview some twenty years later she said

When I was first at the Old Vic in 1957 I played Ophelia. It was during the Asian flu epidemic which I caught, and I walked on to the stage and played the nunnery scene with tears streaming down my face. When I came off, John Neville, who was playing Hamlet, came up and really shook me and said ‘Never do that again! The audience comes to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet and you’re privileged to be playing Ophelia. Don’t think they come to see you with the flu or in tears because one of your family has died, or because you’ve got a headache, or that you can’t be bothered.’ I thought at the time that that was a very harsh thing to do. I realize now that it was one of the most extraordinary and marvellous discipline lessons.