Shakespeare: The Man who Pays the Rent, by Judi Dench

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Review by Elaine Simpson-Long

If I had my way every single teacher in the land who is attempting to teach Shakespeare should have a copy of this to hand as, in my opinion, it is better than any educational text. Well, in my opinion, though I appreciate teachers may disagree….

This book is, quite simply, wonderful. It is a series of conversations between Dame Judi and Brendan O’Hea, an actor, director and associate artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London.

I love Shakespeare, though sometimes I have found the language a bit of a struggle, and thought I knew a fair bit about certain favourite plays, but oh my goodness, having Dame Judi chat and talk and dissect her roles, how she played them, how she approached them, the characters’ motivation, etc., is a real eye opener.

As well as being insightful she is also very funny and has lovely tales to tell about the producers and actors she has worked with. She holds very strong opinions and is not afraid to tell Brendan that he is talking rubbish or to get cross with him at times about the slightly more off the wall motivations he attributes to various characters. In fact, in the acknowledgements at the end of the book he thanks Sam Williams (Dame Judi’s grandson) for “defusing tension between myself and his grandmother and for making us laugh”.  He also thanks his editor who, “had her work cut out excising Dame Judi’s swear words from the audiobook“. Both of these made me laugh.

It seems that Dame Judi is prone to falling over and running about and in one production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the director called the rehearsal to a halt: “Miss Dench, please don’t run in flapping your arms around like two Finnan haddocks”. Apparently, in her eagerness to get onstage, she had unwittingly knocked over a few fairies, “They went down like ninepins”.

The endpapers and book are full of illustrations painted by Dame Judi

It was such a joy to read this book. I did not plunge in and read it all in one go. I took it a play at a time, the ones I knew best first, and then the ones with which I am less familiar and finally a couple I do not know at all and have never seen. All totally fascinating.

One day Dame Judi, after a performance of the Dream at Compton Verney, where the venue had no showers, was travelling back to her cottage in all her make-up. She wore her own clothes but she still had green hands and a green face, “On one occasion a man caught sight of me walking up the lane and fell off his ladder.”

The love and joy expressed in this book is palpable and I cannot recommend it enough. It will stay on my shelf and when I next read Shakespeare, which I am now inspired to do after reading this book, I will make sure to check the chapter on a particular play before I start. Once I decided to do this I went to my bookshelves and discovered that my copy of the complete plays had disappeared. I’m not sure where it went so I went online and immediately bought a new copy.

A wonderful glorious book and I have to end with another anecdote as I love this one so much. Dame Judi was playing Lady Macbeth in a production which toured West Africa. They had a great reception and packed audiences, but it was very taxing playing outside in the heat. “I remember seeing vultures sitting in the trees and I said to the actors ‘for god’s sake twitch when you are playing dead, they’re waiting to eat us.”


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Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.

Judi Dench, Shakespeare: The Man who Pays the Rent (Michael Joseph, 2023). 978-0241632178, 400pp., hardback.

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