Review of Judi Dench’s Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent – Celebrating National Treasures
Out of all the showbiz rumors surrounding Judi Dench, the most unbelievable is probably the one about her time as a young actor playing the lead in Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic under Franco Zeffirelli’s direction. According to legend, during a performance her parents attended, her character’s line “Where is my father and mother, nurse?” prompted her father to proudly announce “Here we are darling, in Row H.” This anecdote is just one of the many charming moments shared in Dench’s new book about her lifelong love for Shakespeare. Dench confirms that the story is indeed true, even though most people don’t believe her when she tells it.
Dame Judi has achieved success in theater, film, and television, but her true passion lies in the works of Shakespeare. Throughout her seventy-year career, she has portrayed both iconic and lesser-known female characters. This book is a culmination of her years dedicated to performing for “the man who pays the rent.”
The story unfolds through a series of casual and personal discussions between the author and her fellow actor, Brendan O’Hea. They cover topics such as tips for speaking in iambic pentameter, fond memories of working with talented actors and directors, and reflections on the complex inner worlds of Shakespeare’s female characters. These conversations are interspersed with industry gossip, reflections on both success and failure, and personal thoughts on love and grief (the author met her late husband, actor Michael Williams, while working at the RSC). Playful and friendly, Dench enjoys teasing O’Hea when his questions become too nosy or pretentious. When O’Hea brings up her two performances as Lady Macbeth, he comments “You really love this play, don’t you?” to which she replies “Absolutely. It’s beautifully written, has a great story, a fantastic role, it’s short with no intermission, and there’s a pub nearby. It’s like heaven.”
Throughout her career, O’Hea has experienced both successes and setbacks. She considers her role as Cleopatra, known as “the Kilimanjaro,” to be one of her greatest achievements. She starred alongside Anthony Hopkins at the National Theatre, and her performance was highly praised (“dangerous, daring, unsurpassable” are her words to describe her co-star). However, despite the acclaim, it’s the negative reviews that tend to stick with actors. O’Hea remembers reading a harsh letter from a dissatisfied audience member in Forest Row, Sussex, while backstage. Her colleague Michael Bryant took the letter and burned it, setting off all the fire alarms in the building. O’Hea still thinks of this incident whenever she passes through Forest Row.
Dench is well-known for her hesitance to offer explanations on the technical aspects of her profession. Instead, she relies on her intuition, and it is this quality that prevents the book from becoming overly complicated and academic. She clearly has little patience for excessive intellectualization or the current trend of spending too much time in rehearsals discussing the play before actually performing it. When asked how to portray Titania, Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she sharply responds, “You don’t. You play the situation. You trust that you appear suitable and let the lines do the work.”
Her enthusiasm for her subject cannot be denied. She suggests reading Othello or The Winter’s Tale to understand jealousy and listening to Romeo and Juliet for matters of love. During the pandemic, she found herself reflecting on Richard II’s quote, “I wasted time, and now time is wasting me.” At 88 years old with declining eyesight, she is well aware of her own mortality, but is more concerned about being treated condescendingly than her physical limitations. When a paramedic asked if she had a caregiver after a recent fall, she wanted to respond with, “I just completed eight weeks at The Garrick.”
In less skilled hands, a book like this could come across as overly self-important – some might even call it “showy.” However, thanks to Dench’s playful talent and O’Hea’s skillful writing, reading this book feels like sitting at the kitchen table with her. It is both friendly and captivating, making it a perfect read for fans of Judi Dench and Shakespeare (which is probably most of us).