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Book excerpt: Judi Dench's love letter to Shakespeare


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In "Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent" (Macmillan), the acclaimed actress Judi Dench shares conversations with friend and actor Brendan O'Hea about the unique relationship she has with the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Read an excerpt below.

"Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent"

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You've had a very long association with Stratford-upon-Avon. When did you first visit?

My parents took me there in 1953, when I was eighteen years old, to see Michael Redgrave as King Lear, and I had one of those Damascene moments. Up until then, I had always dreamed of being a theatre designer, but when I saw Robert Colquhoun's Lear set, I realised that I would never be able to come up with something as imaginative. It was so spare and perfect – it looked like a great big poppadom, with a large rock in the middle, which, when it turned, could reveal the throne, a bed or a cave. Nothing was held up for a scene change– it was all there in front of you, like a box of tricks waiting to be unveiled.

We stayed overnight in Stratford and the following afternoon my parents and I sat across from the theatre on the other side of the river. It was the summer and the theatre doors and windows were all open, and we heard the matinee over the tannoy and watched the actors running up and down the stairs to their dressing rooms. Little did I know that within ten years I'd be stepping on to that stage to play Titania.

There's a saying amongst actors that you go to work in Stratford either to finish a relationship or to start one. Is that true?

I can testify to that – it's a very romantic place, with its own ecosystem. And certainly in the early days, with the poor transport links, it felt very cut off. All the actors are away from home, working hard and playing hard.

Where did you live when you were there?

Scholar's Lane, Chapel Lane, all over the place. And then I met Mikey [Michael Williams] and we married and years later we decided to buy a house in Charlecote, which is just outside Stratford. We invited my mother (who was widowed by then) and Mikey's parents to come and live with us, which they jumped at. It had always been my dream to live in a community – that's a Quaker principle, of course – so it worked out very well.

I remember Mikey and I were driving home one night from the theatre along Hampton Lucy Lane, and we found a young deer wandering the road, disorientated, and we stopped the car and managed to coax it back into Charlecote Park. But the police appeared on our doorstep the next morning, because apparently someone had spotted us and thought we were trying to steal it. (That's the exact same spot where Shakespeare was caught poaching, I believe.) We explained that we weren't taking him out, we were putting him back in, and luckily they let us off the hook.

Whenever I get the chance I still visit Charlecote. We lived there for ten years and Fint [Judi's daughter Finty Williams] grew up there. And Michael is buried in the grounds of the little church.

From "Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent," by Judi Dench and Brendan O'Hea.  Copyright © 2024 by the authors, and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press.

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