Torn Dresses, Frank Sinatra, Ghosts in the Loo: Judi Dench on a Lifetime of Playing Shakespeare

When I was at the old Vic, I had a number of walk-ons and understudy roles—one of which was in Henry VIII with Sir John Gielgud, Harry Andrews and Dame Edith Evans. That was the production when they famously all dried on the first night. All of them—John, Harry and Edith—in that long scene between Wolsey, Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. It must be written up somewhere because it was a horrific moment.

Judi Dench


Brendan O’Hea: What happened?

Judi Dench: Nothing happened! That was the problem. [Laughs.] There was just a great long pause where nobody spoke.

 BOH: Were you onstage when it occurred?

JD: No, I was only in one scene with Dame Edith, later on in the play. I would sit on the ground sewing a tapestry with all the other ladies-in waiting, dressed in some little Elizabethan number. One night when we were performing in Paris, the backstage crew set Dame Edith’s chair in the wrong place, and during the blackout she missed it and fell over. When the lights came up, she looked like a beetle: lying on her back, legs and arms flailing. [Laughs.]

She kept calling out, “Fermez les lumières,” begging them to turn off the lights. I shouldn’t laugh. None of us helped her—we just went on sewing. Maybe that’s why, many years later, nobody helped me when I fell over as Volumnia—divine retribution. Those buggers in Chichester also carried on sewing.

None of us helped her—we just went on sewing. Maybe that’s why, many years later, nobody helped me when I fell over as Volumnia—divine retribution.

In another play—Henry VI, Part Two—I was a spirit in a leotard that came out of the fire and then went home; I didn’t even take the curtain call. I was conjured up by Maggie Courtenay and had to say “Adsum, asmath.” I never even knew what the play was about.

The production coincided with the Asian Flu pandemic—it was rife, and all the boys—God knows why it just seemed to affect the boys—but they were dropping like flies. I was asked to be a rebel in a very depleted army. We were meant to be a great, big unruly mob, but in the end there were just four girls remaining. The rebel leader shouted: “now go some and pull down the Savoy,” and it was left to me to run offstage with a huge long pole with a pointy bit and a pennant on the end.

It got a belter. They took the pole away from me after that. [Laughs.]

BOH: Are there any Shakespeare roles that you’ve longed to play? What about Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew?

JD: I did play her—when I was a student in my second year at Central School of Speech and Drama. We all piled into a big van and drove off to perform the show in Bedford.

But there are a few Shakespeare plays that I just don’t know—Love’s Labour’s Lost, Two Gentlemen of Verona, King John. And nor do I know The Rape of Lucrece. But I do love the Sonnets. I tried to learn one a day during lockdown; I didn’t get very far.

BOH: Which is your favorite?

JD: Sonnet 29: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” but that’s only because it’s the one I’ve learnt most recently. It was also John Gielgud’s favorite. In 2022, a stone was laid for him in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, and I recited it as part of the ceremony.

But there are some sonnets I’d simply rather not commit to memory—such as Sonnet 60: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end.” It’s too full of existential despair. I kept thinking of it during lockdown—the wasted days, wasted friends, the relentless futility of it all. 

BOH: The director John Barton was very keen on the Sonnets, wasn’t he?

JD: They were a cornerstone of his teaching. It’s because they’re so brilliantly compact: you get an entire story in fourteen lines with a beginning, middle and end; and they give you a complete intellectual workout. John could recite all a hundred and fifty-four.

When he moved into Hillborough, which is a manor house on the outskirts of Stratford, he and his wife, Anne, thought the place was haunted. He once spent a whole night sitting in the corner of a room, reciting all the Sonnets to appease the ghosts.

BOH: Do you believe in ghosts?

JD: I’ve seen one. At Michael Dennison’s memorial service at the Haymarket Theatre. It was eleven o’clock in the morning and I was going down to the stalls when a man materialized in front of me, running down the steps in a black tail suit. I mean, as clearly as you are there. I had no idea who he was or where he’d come from.

Ralph [Richardson] also saw a ghost in that theatre. Passed him on the landing on his way to the stage. And why ever not? Good gracious, I am sure there are people about. Especially in theaters. Because where does it go—all that energy that goes into putting on plays, all the echoes of what’s gone on?

BOH: What are the most memorable Shakespeare performances you’ve seen?

JD: That’s hard. When I sat in the gods at the old Vic to see Richard Burton play Henry V and John Neville as the Chorus. unforgettable. And I remember Michael Redgrave as Lear, John [Gielgud] as Prospero, Ralph Richardson as Timon—he was so eccentric. But it’s moments rather than whole performances, like Peggy [Ashcroft] walking across the stage as Cleopatra with great peacock feathers in her headdress. That was a long time ago: 1953. Oh, all my yesterdays.

I do love the Sonnets. I tried to learn one a day during lockdown; I didn’t get very far.

And then more recently, I remember Keeley Hawes and Sophie Okonedo being spectacularly good when we were filming Richard III—I mean, really terrific—as was Ben Cumberbatch. I loved working with them.

BOH: Do you think Shakespeare works on film?

JD: Not as well as it does in the theatre, but there are good adaptations. I thought Ken [Branagh]’s Henry V was wonderful. And I remember seeing Larry [Laurence Olivier]’s Henry V at a cinema in Plymouth during the war, when I was about eight or nine. And later, his Hamlet, where he was sitting on a cliff, with Jean Simmons as Ophelia.

BOH: Did you ever work with Laurence Olivier or Ralph Richardson?

JD: Never Larry, and only once with Ralph. I played Ophelia opposite him on the radio. During the nunnery scene, he tore the sleeve out of my summer dress. He was so apologetic.

I remember, after the recording, I ran to meet Vanessa Redgrave in Trafalgar Square. It was 1961 and we were demonstrating with Canon Collins and Bertrand Russell for “Ban the Bomb.” It was a very peaceful rally, but then the police arrived and herded us up, and a few officers grabbed hold of Vanessa and tried to throw her in the back of a van. She said, “You can’t arrest me, I’ve got a matinee,” so they let her go! 

BOH: And what about Paul Schofield—did you work with him?

JD: Again, only once—on the radio in Titus Andronicus. I played Lavinia, who has her tongue pulled out and her hands chopped off. All I remember is I had a broom handle under my arm and I was told to keep tapping and scratching on the ground to create the sound of her trying to communicate, which made Paul Schofield laugh a lot.

My husband Mikey worked with Paul Schofield more extensively. They were in New York together in Peter Brook’s King Lear. After the show one night, Mikey and (I think) Freddie Jones were in a bar, both feeling despondent because they didn’t think the performance had gone particularly well.

They were hunched over their drinks, drowning their sorrows, when they felt somebody approach from behind, stand between them and put a hand on each of their shoulders. Then they heard an American voice say: “Bartender, give these two Shakespearean cats a drink.” They looked up and it was Frank Sinatra.


Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent - Dench, Judi

From Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent by Judi Dench and Brendan O’Hea. Copyright ©2024 by the authors, and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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