There can be few higher pleasures in civilised life than hearing Judi Dench recite the poetry of Shakespeare. “Recite”, of course, is not the adequate word – because she lives the text, inhabiting and illuminating it through the warmth of her vocal timbre, the unaffected clarity of her diction and an imaginative sensitivity that can animate even a bare monosyllable. Over a hiatus of more than 50 years, I can still hear her making her entrance as Viola in John Barton’s matchless production of Twelfth Night with the simple line “What country, friends, is this?” – and the way that her tiny pause before, and uplifted emphasis on, the word “this”, somehow evoked a whole landscape of wonders.
In this utterly delightful book, Dench – now a sprightly 88, hampered only by failing sight – is candidly interviewed by her actor friend and amanuensis Brendan O’Hea about her lifetime experience of working on the world’s greatest playwright, starting with her debut as Queen Isabel in Richard II at the age of 15, and culminating in her glorious octogenarian swansong as Paulina in Kenneth Branagh’s production of The Winter’s Tale. What emerges is a wealth of unpretentious horse sense – Shakespeare from a great actor’s perspective – that repeatedly strikes to the heart of the matter with a sharp instinctive intelligence that puts many a literary critic to shame.
And alongside all this fresh and subtle commentary comes an unstoppable stream of anecdotes, recollections and asides, welling out of Dench’s “phenomenal memory” and salted by her robustly Thespian and somewhat scatological sense of humour. What she loves about the theatre is the camaraderie and the offstage japes that go with it: nothing gives her greater pleasure than a wig falling off on stage or corpsing at an ill-timed fart.
Yet for all this slapstick delight in things going wrong, one never doubts her passionately serious commitment to things going right. Shakespeare, she says is “a beacon for humanity and a bridge across cultures”. Not that she idolises him undiscriminatingly: King Lear and As You Like It come in for some knocks, and The Merchant of Venice is written off as “a horrible play” in which “all the characters behave so badly”, and Portia is branded “an a—hole”. Shakespeare, she says, “must’ve been having a funny turn when he wrote it”.