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Judi Dench on a career and friendship forged by Shakespeare

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE")

GWYNETH PALTROW: (As Viola) Your Majesty.

JUDI DENCH: (As Queen Elizabeth I) I've seen you. You are the one who comes to all the plays at Whitehall, at Richmond.

PALTROW: (As Viola) Your Majesty.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That is Dame Judi Dench and Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1998 movie "Shakespeare In Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE")

DENCH: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Playwrights teach us nothing about love. They make it pretty. They make it comical. Or they make it lust. They cannot make it true.

PALTROW: (As Viola) Oh, but they can. I mean, your Majesty, they do not. They have not, but I believe there is one who can.

KELLY: The one who Paltrow is referring to is William Shakespeare. In that scene, Dench plays a skeptical Queen Elizabeth I. And I will say her performance is brilliant for a bunch of reasons, among them - I don't think Dench believes a word of what her character is saying. She built her career around Shakespeare's work, playing everyone from star-crossed lover Juliet...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENCH: (As Juliet) Will thou be gone? It is not yet near the day. It was the nightingale and not the lark that pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.

KELLY: ...Also the tragic Lady Macbeth...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MACBETH" )

DENCH: (As Lady Macbeth) Here's a spot.

DAVID HOWEY: (As Doctor) Hark. She speaks.

DENCH: (As Lady Macbeth) Out, damn spot. Out, I say.

KELLY: ...To the comical Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM")

DENCH: (As Titania) What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?

KELLY: Just a few of Shakespeare's leading ladies who Judi Dench has played over the decades. Well, she reflects on all of them in the new book "Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays The Rent." It chronicles a series of conversations over four years between Dench and her friend, the actor and director Brendan O'Hea. And they both join me now. Brendan O'Hea and Dame Judi Dench, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DENCH: Thank you.

BRENDAN O'HEA: It's a pleasure.

DENCH: Thank you very much indeed - lovely to be here.

KELLY: Lovely to have you with us. As I listen to that, I wonder, when you learn these lines for these iconic characters, how long do they stay with you? I'm not going to force you to do - I'm not putting you on the spot. But if you had to recite these lines again, could you do them all?

DENCH: I could do the whole of "Twelfth Night" for you and the whole of the "Dream." I could do a lot of antiquing about that. You won't want any of this. And I could - it's the only thing I can remember. I can't remember where I put my shirt yesterday or a pair of shoes. I can't remember what's happening tomorrow, and I can't remember what happened last week. Sonnets and Shakespeare I can remember.

KELLY: Why is that - something to do with the way you learned them or lived them?

DENCH: Something to do with the fact that the way he writes is like the beat of your heart. It's in iambic pentameter. So it's da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da (ph). And therefore, it's something that stays with you, I think.

KELLY: Brendan O'Hea, jump in here. The title of you all's book is "The Man Who Pays The Rent." And I know that is because Judi Dench and your husband, Michael Williams - you worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company steadily over many, many years. But Brendan O'Hea, you say you considered a different title for the book, "Herding Eels."

(LAUGHTER)

O'HEA: Oh, yes. Oh, God. I'm going to be - she's sitting there right next to me. She might just smack me in the head in a minute. But it's impossible to pin Jude down, especially when talking about her craft. But because of - although, of course, so many people had a ghastly time during lockdown. It just allowed us just to go through all the plays, and it just gave us a focus. And Jude, well, likes to muck about - I mean, any opportunity to muck about. So I'd have to say, well, look. There's some butter crisps in the other room, or there's a glass of champagne waiting for you. Let's just do five minutes. I know your game, she'd say. So, yeah, it took a lot of coaxing. She's very, very slippery. She doesn't like talking about her craft. But we got there in the end.

DENCH: You know, my daughter sent my grandson to me, who taught me about TikTok. And Brendan rang and said, I'm going to come down. And it got us through COVID wonderfully.

KELLY: I understand, Judi Dench, that your eyesight is deteriorating. And I'm sorry.

DENCH: It has deteriorated.

KELLY: That must be incredibly frustrating.

DENCH: I'm afraid...

KELLY: Yeah.

DENCH: ...It has deteriorated. Yes. It's hopeless.

KELLY: Yeah.

DENCH: But, you know, it's - part of acting is part of being able to pretend you can see. And apart from the fact that I can walk straight past to an old friend, I can act it. And it doesn't matter - in the great scheme of things, doesn't matter.

KELLY: Does it open any pathways as an actor to see the role in a different way?

DENCH: No. No, it closes because I can't - I realize, which I never had realized, that I need to know exactly where a speech is on a page and in relation to the other speeches. Well, of course, I can't do that. I can be taught a part, but I have to know actually where it sits. And that's impossible now. I mean, Brendan and I have done a lot of - we're going to do several, and we have done a lot of book festivals with this book.

KELLY: Yeah.

DENCH: So it's not only saved our life during COVID but saved mine during this time when I can't say yes to a part because I can't see it.

KELLY: I hadn't thought about that, yeah - how important that is to the work of memorization.

DENCH: There are pluses to be had though, if you look for them.

KELLY: Toward the end of your book, a question is posed. And I want to put it to each of you. The question is, does Shakespeare have a future? Brendan, you first - what's your answer?

O'HEA: Yeah, definitely. We unwittingly speak Shakespeare all the time. The word assassination - you know, we didn't know the word assassination until Shakespeare coined it. And there's the whole raft of other words and phrases that Shakespeare came up with. So we use him in everyday language unwittingly. But we will because he - well, Jude will expand on it.

DENCH: No, I mean, that's absolutely perfect because nobody, in my estimation, whoever wrote about the whole raft of human feelings - about love, about envy, about idolatry, about sadness, about death, about the afterlife - there's nobody who has written like that and who still remains with us in our, as I say, everyday expressions.

O'HEA: And I suppose another thing to add as well about the book Jude is adamant about - you know, there's no right way of doing Shakespeare. And if I may say, you know, your approach is not pointy finger. It's not didactic. It's a palms-open approach. I think you lay a place at the table for people to come and listen into our conversation about what you have to say and allow people to pick the bones out of it and to formulate their own opinions. You would never say that there's one way of doing it.

DENCH: No, that's true, I mean, because everybody has different experiences of every emotion. And somebody who has been in love for the first time - they may not have been in love the way that Juliet is in love. But nevertheless, they understand the emotion. And Shakespeare was able to distill that. And you get a line like, my love is all as boundless as the sea - no, my bounty. Here I go. I've misquoted already. My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite. Well, we all want to say that sometime to somebody; don't we?

KELLY: Yes, we do. Esteemed Judi Dench and her friend, the actor and director Brendan O'Hea. Together, they have written "Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays The Rent." This was gorgeous. Thanks so much to both of you.

O'HEA: Oh, bless you.

DENCH: Thank you so much.

O'HEA: It's been a pleasure, Mary Louise.

DENCH: It has been lovely.

O'HEA: Thank you to you and your team.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAY ERLEWINE AND WOODY GOSS SONG, "TOPIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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