The huskiness in Judi Dench’s voice makes her sound 16 going on Tallulah Bankhead. And her sentences lurch forward rather in the way of a car with kangaroo petrol. She talks with enthusiasm about everything, frequently getting words wrong or asking what they mean (‘humanitarian’??), and fulfils one expectation by speaking in splendidly actressy superlatives about other people she works with – the writer and director of the film about Queen Victoria and John Brown which she has just made with Billy Connolly, ‘Mrs Brown’, are both “geniuses”, acting with the Big Yin was “absolute heaven”, trying to learn her latest part in David Hare’s new play about to open at the National, ‘Amy’s View’, is “agony” and “torture” but will eventually be “thrilling”, her husband and daughter are “paramount”.
She is charmingly ‘a socking great naive’, as I wrote in my notes half way through talking to her. It was when she was describing her preparedness to ‘fight a corner’, which involved a story where she once burst into the office of the then Managing Director of the National Theatre who was in a meeting with a prominent ‘Sir’. And getting him to keep the bar open backstage for an extra half an hour so that cast could have a drink after Anthony & Cleopatra. Not exactly Spartacus’s victory of the slaves but evidence to the great Dame that “at the National everybody can get things done”. And to the rest of us, given how unsurprising it is that The South Bank’s number one turn can arrange for the spear carriers to get a half of lager after curtain down, evidence to the rest of us that
But combine this openness with very little vanity, an instinctive sense of people’s contradictions and a reluctance to judge and you begin to work out what makes her an actress of such brilliance and versatility.
In the forty years since she first performed at The Old Vic, where she will return at the beginning of next year to join Sir Peter Hall’s company, she has defied typecasting by playing Cleopatra – “why me I’m a menopausal dwarf?” – the original West End Sally Bowles in Cabaret – “like me, middle class and couldn’t sing” – Juliet in a production by Zeferrelli – “I got panned” – the Spymistress M in Goldeneye – “how lovely to be able to call Bond a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur and a relic of the cold war’ ” – and a brace of the kind of BBC sitcoms from that part of middle England where even Waitrose is half timbered: “A Fine Romance”, with her husband Michael Williams, and “As Time Goes By” with the ever reliable Geoffrey Palmer, which has just been decommissioned for a seventh series. Even though these tenaciously hug the middle of the road and cause the critics and smart set to bury their heads in their hands, she is as believable and real in them as she is in Chekhov, Ibsen or Shakespeare.
She will tell me nothing about David Hare’s new play – neither will he because he never does – except to say that it is about “the awkward turns that love takes, about feuding families and it’s a defence of the theatre. You’ll just have to come and see it.” But she does let on that she is having terrible trouble learning it. She says a little disarmingly “With this I shall actually have to physically look at the script and learn it.” Don’t you always? “No, before I’ve always done it by osmosis”. And not only does she never learn plays she hardly ever reads them before the first rehearsal. “When we were doing Anthony and Cleopatra, I met Tony Hopkins at a dinner party and he said, “Have you read it?” And I said “No”. And he said “Thank Christ for that”. And Peter Hall had two bummers at the read through.” Do you read just your bits before? “No I don’t do that either. I know it’s idiosyncratic, but it means that you don’t start the process before you’re actually with everybody and then you can listen to them.” You don’t think about it before hand then? “I must think inside my computer, so to speak”. You don’t intellectualise, at all? “ No I don’t do that at all. I only do instinctive.”
Esme in Amy’s View is an actress of a different kind from Dench. “I think I’m more adventurous than she is. She’s of the old school, when the West End was full of straight plays: ‘Enter through french windows with trug.” Do you like her? “I never make that decision. It’s immaterial…. any more than you approve of yourself. I do make moral judgements about myself, but I don’t think you like or dislike a person. I think you just see a jumble of all sorts of things, some good, some bad, some things you like, some you don’t and some you are bewildered about. Show me a part that’s black and white.”
One of the central arguments of the play happens between her and her daughter Amy’s boyfriend. “To him the theatre is obsolete. When a person walks into a room you know they’re going to walk across so fast forward, jump cut.” Presumably both she and Esme disagree. “Oh yes absolutely”. What is important about the theatre then? “Well it’s absolutely vital.” The car has a bad attack of kangaroo patrol now. And I remember that she only does instinctive not intellectual. But then she makes the comparison with a Quaker Meeting.
“Quaker Meetings are entirely to do with everybody else… passing things round. Communing with other people. Theatre is live communication with other people. You’ve got to think that every night there is a whole group of people there and they need to be told a story.” Dench is the living riposte to the argument by those, even given space in this paper, who prefer the individual experience of poetry and the novel, those who prefer ownership to sharing, market individuality to democracy and probably masturbation to conjugal sex and definitely the privacy of experience over an idea of society. Their intellectualisation abhors the shared and the communal. Dench makes no special pleading for the theatre. “If you’re going to say to me is the theatre as essential as getting people off the streets, I’m going to say to you it’s a different thing. People have got to be got off the streets.” But she goes on. “You cannot set one thing against another. It’s to ephemeral to say that theatre’s a spiritual thing, but that’s what it can be. It has something to do with the spirit of the people. With communication. And the audience plays a totally vital part in it. They make it different every night, not us. If that wasn’t the case I’d just stay at home.” And phone it in? “No I wouldn’t even bother to do that. I’d just read a book”.
And with her so constantly in work there’s going to be few books read in the Dench household for the foreseeable future. Nor scripts.