Of course I was going to grab Judi Dench’s new book about Shakespeare. How could I not? I bought it on the day it was published last month.
The Man Who Pays the Rent is a series of conversations between our greatest theatrical grande dame, who is anything but prima-donna-ish, and Brendan O’Hea, an actor, theatre director and Associate Artist at Shakespeare’s Globe. The illustrations – who knew she could draw and paint? – are by Dench herself.
They discuss twenty plays that Dench has performed in, not always agreeing with each other. And she comes at each discussion from a whole range of angles. In some cases she has, at different points in her career, played several roles in the same play and, of course, everything she says is informed by 88 years of life experience.
Oh, how I wish I could have shared her insights with my A level students when they were studying some of these plays. They would have loved her chuckling, perceptive earthiness. For example, we would all have laughed, and then agreed with her, that Angelo in Measure for Measure would have been “up all night wanking, probably” at the prospect of Isabella coming back with a “yes”, the next day. With a grin which leaps off the page she tells O’Hea not to put that in the book. “Say ‘having dirty thoughts and interfering with himself’ “ she says. Yes, I hope some of my former students are reading this.
She knows what each character is thinking and quotes text continually to support her points in a gloriously unstuffy way. She loves the plays (except for The Merchant of Venice of which more in a minute) and the language which she argues should never be “translated” or updated because everything you need is there on the page written by the amazing Mr Shakespeare.
Inevitably we get a lot of memories about fellow actors, directors, mishaps and anecdotes. Working with Franco Zeffirelli on Romeo and Juliet was, for example, a roller coaster. And she is funny about John Woodvine as Cornwall, hurling a “bloodied” lychee which stood for Gloucester’s gouged-out eye in the RSC production of King Lear in which she played Regan. How safe did she feel being thrown around by Daniel Day-Lewis in the closet scene when she was Gertude to his Hamlet? “Oh God, yes, I always felt safe with him. The fight was all choreographed. Violence on stage can’t be real, otherwise you’re going to get through a lot of Desdemonas.” She’s very good on Gertrude too observing that she’s “a bling person” who has probably always had the hots for Claudius. It can’t all have developed in a few weeks and, half jokingly, she suggests that old Hamlet was probably boring. “Perhaps he had gout. Or maybe he couldn’t, you know – get it up.”
She says of King Lear that you can see it from everyone’s point of view. “Regan tries to reason with her father. Yes, of course he must come and stay but she doesn’t want him bringing the whole court with him, making all those demands. And besides she’s ‘out of that provision, which means she hasn’t had a chance to pop to Tesco’s”. I really like the way she casually, wittily, uses anachronism to stress relevance – yet another reason why every A Level English teacher should be directing students to this book.
So what does she have against “The Merchant of fucking Venice” which she variously describes as a “vile” “ horrible” “loathsome” and “insufferable” play? She was Portia in an RSC production directed by Terry Hands in which her late husband Michael “Mikey Williams played Bassanio. “All the characters behave so badly. Nobody really redeems themselves …. “ She says. “I’d spend the day thinking: God I’ve got to do that bloody awful show again tonight” instead of skipping to work as she usually did.
Dame Judi is immensely good company but she dosen’t suffer fools. Several times O’Hea says something provocative or something she disagrees with and she comes back at him very assertively. She knows these works like almost no other and yet she remains humble and wanting to learn. She brings a child-like “naughtiness” to the discussion but is very serious about the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry and how it can, and should, be spoken. Viola’s “Make me a willow cabin at your gate” speech from Twelfth Night, for instance is ravishing, she asserts.
Students, academics and critics know these plays from the outside in. You can, and I am in many cases, be very familiar with a play and have thought about its nuances and meaning a lot. But you remain on the outside. There’s no substitute for knowing and understanding dramatic texts from the inside out. That’s what makes this entertaining, thoughtful and informative book such a useful addition to the several shelves in my office devoted to books about Shakespeare.
And I shall long treasure her quirky and unexpected epilogue which made me shed a tear of two.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Dance of the Dwarfs by Geoffrey Household