“Dedum, dedum, dedum. It’s the rhythm of life, the beating of your heart.” Judi Dench may not have an academic background in the Bard, as noted in the introduction to Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent, but it becomes immediately clear that she is nonetheless an authority on his work. Descriptions, like the one above on iambic pentameter, are woven throughout the book, drawn from Dench’s decades-long career in various roles across the canon. From bit parts to leading ladies, her love of the text on a line level and her knowledge of the characters is to the fore in this engaging series of interviews conducted by theatre director and Globe associate artist Brendan O’Hea, a long-time friend of the actress.
Their rapport enlivens the somewhat dull Q&A format of the book, which grew out of a series of interviews conducted over four years that were initially intended solely for the archives of the Globe Theatre in Stratford. These transcripts could have been finessed into a long-form narrative of Dench’s life and career, but O’Hea’s decision to keep the direct interview style allows Dench’s voice and sensibility to prevail. It also results in a surprisingly pacy read. Between back-stage anecdotes, celebrity cameos, extracts of the text and Dench’s insightful analysis, the whole thing zips along and would make a fine Christmas present for any aspiring actor, writer or director.
Billed as Dench’s “love letter to Shakespeare,” her considerations are deeply felt, rooted in her respect for the text. She comes across as a purist – why overcomplicate things? is a frequent response to O’Hea’s questions on character and scene motivation – who shows up to the rehearsal room to work rather than to hypothesise: “We certainly didn’t sit around and intellectualise it all. Unless the audience are going to have a share of that, I think that’s just an indulgence. You must do your own homework and get on with it.”
Through the gently combative nature of the Q&A, a portrait of Dench emerges as an actor who is sharp, thoughtful and a bit of a joker, most endearingly when the joke is on her. Alluding to her notorious clumsiness on stage, O’Hea wonders, “Have you ever been in a play where you haven’t fallen over?” To which she replies, “Not that I can think of. It’s in my contract.” On the indignities of aging, she recalls a paramedic asking her, “‘Do we have a carer?’ I wanted to say: ‘I’ve just done eight f***ing weeks at the Garrick.’”
Most of the major plays are covered – Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, the histories, among others – and give the arc of Dench’s impressive career, from being dropped in her early days as Ophelia at the Old Vic after poor reviews, to her stellar, multi-award winning career (including a record eight Laurence Olivier awards) in the decades since. Flashes of her life off stage are similarly entertaining. She discovers she’s pregnant with her daughter Fint during a production of Toad at Toad Hall. The doctor who examines her after the show “said he’d never forget arriving backstage and seeing me being sick into a barrel, dressed as a stoat”.
Elsewhere, there are poignant odes to lost friends – well-known actors and directors who Dench plants trees for in her garden – and a beautiful aside to her late husband, the actor Michael Williams, who died in 2001: “I always think that grief – it was the same when Mikey died – grief creates enormous energy-like fright, like joy, jealousy, love, all those big emotions. And you have to channel that energy and use it to some...not good, but purpose.” Incidentally, the subtitle of the book comes from the couple’s nickname for the Bard.
Yet the best part of The Man Who Pays the Rent, for any lover of Shakespeare, is the sheer joy with which Dench approaches the work (even the plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, that she dislikes). This perspective on the Macbeths is typical of her discernment throughout: “They have a lot of shared lines, which not only indicates the speed of the scene, but also how attuned they are to each other…It’s a short play. Do it without an interval, which is what we did and you don’t lose the tension.”
Dench’s instincts as an actor, her knowledge and experience give the book its depth. And like all good complementary texts, it makes you want to read the original material again: “Because those lines that he wrote–they have to be good for your brain, don’t they? I don’t even have to be on a stage saying them–just whispering them quietly to myself can give me an endorphin rush.”