Sunday Afternoons With Judi

I waited in (virtual) line for Dame Judi Dench’s audiobook, Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays The Rent. Like Sir Patrick Stewart’s book, this is one of those things that as a Shakespeare Geek you simply must experience. These are the gods and goddesses of our art still walking the earth. When they speak, we must listen.

At first I thought I was going to be disappointed with this book, as I noted in a previous post. It’s not at all like Stewart’s book. This one is not a traditional biography, auto- or otherwise. This is a collection of interviews between Dench and the narrator, her longtime friend Brendan O’Hea. The good news is I still loved it. I have the perfect analogy. Ready?

Dame Judi Dench

Imagine you’re a child again. It’s Sunday afternoon and your parents tell you that you’re all going to visit your grandmother at the rest home. Your grandmother used to be a world-famous stage actress. You’re so excited! You love visiting your grandmother; you can listen to her stories for hours. You happily travel to where she lives, and you find her seated in her comfy chair, with a cup of tea, and a book of puzzles on the table next to her, perhaps a quilt in her lap. After hugs and kisses hello, you settle down at her feet and say, “Tell us about when you were an actress?”

That’s exactly this book. One chapter is about Macbeth, another about Twelfth Night or Winter’s Tale or Cymbeline. There’s a chapter about rehearsals and one about audiences. It’s basically O’Shea saying, “Now, Judi, you first played Ophelia when you were 15…” and Dench going deep into memory, telling us what she wore, what jokes the actors played on each other, even quoting her favorite passages like they’re still as fresh in her mind as they were 60 years ago.

Also, just like a conversation with your grandmother, there are odd non-sequiturs that pop up between the stories, like the time they argue over whether Judi burnt the pork chops. And I’ll bet she’s not the only grandmother to utter exclamations like, “What the fuck does YOLO mean?” Breaking news, Dame Judi Dench has a filthy mouth. O’Shea even tells her, in the extra material, that editing out all her f-words was the hardest part of the whole book.

Just like listening to our elders tell their stories, it’s important to listen. Dench has stories from over fifty years of performing most of Shakespeare’s canon, and oh my yes, she has thoughts. We’ll hear her thoughts on favorite parts and plays she hates, theories she believes in, and those she finds utterly ridiculous (watch out, people who want to argue that Much Ado About Nothing is about lady parts…) Many of her stories involve actors no longer with us, making them even more important. Speaking their names – John Barton, Peter Brook, John Gielgud – feels like conjuring their ghosts to rise again. She paints a vivid picture, and you’re right there with her.

Like Stewart’s book, this one absolutely benefits from the audiobook treatment. It’s a conversation, so the back-and-forth banter is part of the fun. Dench’s voice is also a thing of beauty. I’ve watched her recite Sonnet 29 on the Graham Norton Show many times, and this is like a whole book of that. At any time, you realize she’s switched to reciting, and you can just sit back and bathe in the luxury of it. And also, like too many of our own cherished loved ones, one day that voice will be gone. So we need to cherish it while it’s here. If they told me tomorrow that Volume Two was coming out next Shakespeare Day I’d put my name on the list for that one, too.

One thought on “Sunday Afternoons With Judi

  1. I just received my signed copy in the mail. I haven’t started it yet. I want a nice, not busy weekend to immerse myself. After reading your article, I may listen to it as well.

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