BWW Exclusive: Dame Judi Dench Discusses Shakespeare, Her Passion, CATS, Potential Broadway Return
Nearly every person to ever walk the planet has shared a similar goal; an objective so fundamental to who are as humans that it seems redundant to even mention. We are each spurred on by a yearning so innate in our being that it is difficult, even now, to conceptualize. We all strive to achieve something that makes our efforts feel worthwhile. Regardless of nationality, privilege, or education, we are all essentially searching for the same thing; passion.
Only some are able to ever identify their specific passion, far fewer are able to achieve it, and only a select handful are able to make their passion their life's work; Judi Dench is one of those handful of fortunate people. When I asked her last week why, despite a nearly six-decade career and nearly every major acting award the world over, she continues to return to the plays of William Shakespeare, in a tone exceedingly gentle, yet slightly dismayed that the question need even be asked, she said, "'Cause that's my passion, Matt."
Dame Judi Dench's acting career began in earnest as a member of the Old Vic Company in 1957. In her first four years with the esteemed troupe, she appeared in 10 of Shakespeare's plays, portraying Ophelia, Juliet, Hermia, and more, but it wasn't at the Old Vic that her passion for The Bard began; nor was it with the Royal Shakespeare Company with whom she has performed over two dozen times.
Instead, one of the greatest actors to ever live discovered her passion for the works of William Shakespeare at a far earlier age.
"I was taken, as a little girl, to see my brothers at their school; I think I must have been eight, or so; in 'The Taming of the Shrew' and in 'Julius Caesar,'" she recalled. "My second brother (Jeffrey) had always wanted to be an actor, I think I might have just caught it from him, really.
"My parents were very enthusiastic about Shakespeare, so we were taken to see lots of Shakespeare as children, and then I got into the Old Vic, which was fantastically lucky."
After the Old Vic, Dench began a relationship with the RSC that continues to this day. Between theatre, television, and film, she has been involved with 37 major Shakespearean productions, as actor or director, not counting projects adapted from The Bard's plays, or 1998's SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, for which she won an Academy Award.
Most recently Dame Judi appeared as Paulina in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company production of THE WINTER'S TALE. The performance earned Dench her record-breaking eighth Olivier Award, her third for a Shakespearean role following Lady Macbeth in 1977 and Cleopatra in 1987.
Of the production, Dench said, "We had such a lovely time doing it. I'm very sad it's finished. It was just such fun to do it; it was wonderful."
However, when you have performed as much of the Shakespearean cannon as Dench has, it is not uncommon to revisit shows that you have previously performed, often in different roles.
"The last time I did perform (THE WINTER'S TALE) was absolutely thrilling. I think it was in 1969, and Trevor Nunn asked me to play Hermione, and I remember saying to him, 'It can't be (time for) mothers parts yet, is it?' And he said, 'I'm afraid it is.'"
Despite being only 35 at the time, Tony and Oliver-winner Nunn, cast Dench as Queen Hermione, but also relied on an 80-year-old casting idea to give his dynamic leading lady more stage time.
"Then he came back to me a little while later and said, 'I think we can double Hermione and Perdita,' which had been done once before by Mary Anderson, with (Johnston) Forbes-Robertson a very long time ago indeed, and that was very exciting.
"And so, it was wonderful to come at it from a different angle this time, and of course Ken Branagh, who I know so well, who was not only directing, but playing Leontes as well."
It wasn't until Dench assumed the role of Sicilian noblewoman Paulina in the Branagh production, en route to her eighth Olivier, that she realized how substantial the role was.
"It was exciting, and I was so busy playing Hermione and Perdita before, I hadn't really noticed what a wonderful part Paulina was; and indeed Brenda Bruce was wonderful as Paulina in that production."
In addition to her West End triumph, Dench is part of an album, recently re-released, which features a handful of acclaimed British actors performing selected Shakespearean monologues and sonnets with original classical music. In addition to Dench, her brother Jeffery Dench, who passed away in 2014, Jeffrey's grandson Oliver Dench, the great David Suchet, and Emilia Fox appear on "Shakespeare: Exits & Entrances." It was Jeffrey, who brought his sister on board the project.
"He knew Mike Ritson, who put it all together. Working with Jeff was a joy anyway, we (performed together) at Stratford several times, and so, you don't need much urging to (work with him)."
The album features excerpts from ROMEO AND JULIET, THE TEMPEST, HENRY V, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, and more. However, of the six tracks that Judi Dench performs, four are sonnets.
"At Stratford (with the Royal Shakespeare Company) you work very much on the sonnets, when you're learning to speak Shakespeare. So we knew many of the sonnets by heart; and so that was lovely to do, lovely."
Dench said that the selections featured on the recording came from suggestions from producer Ritson, his partner, composer Jackie Williams, and the performers themselves. Dench said that it was rewarding to perhaps expose a wider audiences to some of the lesser known sonnets, but that her current favorite track on the album was one that returned her to one of her most cherished roles.
"I absolutely loved ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, and I did it at the (Royal) National (Theatre)... with Tony Hopkins," she said. "So, I got a bit of a chance to do 'I dreamt there was an Emperor, Antony,' again, and that was lovely to do."
Dench said that she enjoyed revisiting the speech, because no matter how many accolades a performance receives, actors usually want another chance to make it as perfect as possible. "You always make mistakes, and each time you think, 'Maybe this time, I'll get it better.'"
It is reassuring, not only for aspiring actors, but for anyone striving to achieve their passion, to know that even one of the most accomplished performers of this, or any, generation still finds fault in her work. However, it is about more than achievement for Dench. From her perspective, the works and words of William Shakespeare are a vibrant part of our collective daily life, and they are still as resonant today as they were 400 years ago. So, helping to bring them to new audiences is a reward unto itself.
"We colloquially use his words all the time" Dench said. "He's a completely integral part of our upbringing, really; even if you don't know it, you are quoting him nearly every day."
Despite growing popular sentiment, the acclaimed actress believes that in the proper hands, even today's most tech-obsessed, instant-gratification dependent millennials can find something valuable in The Bard's plays.
"School children may be kind of thinking, 'Oh, I don't know, I don't want to go to Shakespeare,' but... one good production, and you kind of catch them," she said. "You think, 'There's the audience of the future.'
"It's not an archaic language, it's somebody who knew about love, and knew about jealousy, and knew about envy, and knew about joy, and youth, and old age.... with the plays, it's a question of telling the story really well, and if you can, then... young school children might maybe want to see more."
On Sunday, in partnership with BroadwayRadio, BWW will release the EXCLUSIVE audio of this interview, in which Dench talks more about the album, her time in Stratford with Ian McKellen, and more.
Despite her unparalleled career, Dame Judi Dench has only appeared on Broadway three times. First in rep with the Old Vic in 1958-1959 with TWELFTH NIGHT and KING HENRY V, then in 1999 in David Hare's AMY'S VIEW, for which she won a Tony Award. She also recorded the voice of the Giantess for the 2002 revival of INTO THE WOODS.
Since she last truly appeared on Broadway 17 years ago, she has done 10 plays in the UK, so I asked her if there was a chance that we would get her back on a New York stage any time soon.
"Oh gosh, well, I'm going to start a film... in September, so I've got actually quite a lot of work coming up, but I keep my fingers crossed," she said. "We had, for AMY'S VIEW, gosh, we had the most incredible time. Wonderful, wonderful time on Broadway, and I have several friends, good friends in New York. We were very spoiled. It might come along, who knows."
"I nearly got to do that; if I hadn't fallen over and done my Achilles tendon," she laughed. In 1981, Dench was tapped to originate the role of the Glamour Cat in the original production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but during rehearsal she was injured not once, but twice, paving the way for Elaine Paige to take on her star-making role.
"(It happened) rehearsing, about, oh not that long before we opened; rehearsing with Wayne Sleep (Quaxo) and Gillian Lynne (choreographer)," she remembered. "They then delayed the opening a bit, but when I went back to rehearse in plaster; she's kind of a claptrap old cat, Grizabella, so it didn't matter; (then) I fell off the stage at the New London, so it was impossible; impossible. But, I loved it when I went to see it, just loved it."
Recently there has been a trend for Shakespearean productions to be cast completely with female actors. The Public Theatre currently has an all-female production of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW playing at the Delacorte Theatre, and earlier this week BroadwayWorld reported that the Donmar Warehouse and director Phyllida Lloyd, who is also directing the Public's TAMING OF THE SHREW, would produce THE TEMPSET, JULIUS CAESAR, and HENRY IV with an all-female repertory company.
Despite having played nearly all of Shakespeare's heroine's, Dench is not particularly enthused about the opportunity to take on their male counterparts.
"I was with Glenda Jackson the other day, and I said to Glenda, 'I hear you're going to play King Lear,'" Dench recalled. "It made me tired just to think of it actually. Gosh, that's a lot to get through. She'll sail through it, of course, because she's been a very, very good M.P. (Member of Parliament). Perhaps, that's good preparation (laughs)."
When I asked what it was about taking on traditionally male roles that didn't appeal to her, Dench acknowledged that her feelings weren't as modern and progressive as perhaps they should be, but she felt that adding a layer of gender-bending was unnecessary, given how often Shakespeare did it himself.
"I'm not very keen, I know it's old-fashioned of me, on cross-casting," Dench said. Then after a pause, she added, "much as it would be wonderful to say some of those lines.
"Shakespeare plays so much with the genders anyway. With Violet pretending to be a boy, with Rosalind pretending to be a boy. He plays with all of these things anyway, but if you further complicate it, well... I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. That's me, old-fashioned."
Old-fashioned or not, Judi Dench is passionate about preserving and expanding the impact of the works of William Shakespeare; and for many across the world, The Bard could not ask for a better champion.
What is your favorite Judi Dench role from stage or screen? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. Remember to subscribe to BroadwayRadio on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get podcasts, for the full audio interview.
Banner Image: Judi Dench at the 2016 Oliviers. Photo Credit: The BBC