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Cannonball Read III: Judi Dench: With a Crack in Her Voice by John Miller

By Samantha | Books | March 27, 2011 |

By Samantha | Books | March 27, 2011 |

Were you aware that Judi Dench is awesome? You probably were, but if you’d like to know a little bit more about her awesomeness, you should read this biography. It’s pretty interesting, but it does come with some caveats.

1. If you ever entertained any notions of a career in theater but went on to do something practical, like be a librarian, this book will make you regret this choice.
2. You will be forever regretful of all the amazing theatrical performances you had no opportunity of seeing. I’m not just talking about Dame Judi’s (although, my god); she talks about seeing other performances as well. For instance: Did you know that Ciaran Hinds originated the role of Larry in Closer on the stage? Gah.
3. You will be sorely tempted to quit your job and spend the next six months reading all the plays that get talked about. You’re still not all the way through the entirety of Shakespeare, and you’ve read almost no Chekhov and you’re ashamed.

If you can get past all that, though, it’s a good read. It’s a little bit confusing organizationally, but it’s mostly just amazing; the career that woman’s had. It really speaks a lot to the differences, perhaps, in how acting and showbiz works in the UK as opposed to the US. Judi Dench was a tremendous deal over there (and to people really in-the-know here) long before she became a noted film actress. She had done practically everything there was to be done in terms of Shakespeare, and done it with everyone who was anyone. For her to become a noted film actress seems really almost like a postscript.

Perhaps my view is a little cynical, but that’s a far cry from how it sometimes seems that actresses “make it big” here in the US … somebody says “Gosh, you’ve got a pretty face,” and the next thing you know, you’re having a screen-test. That’s not entirely fair, of course. In the last bio I read, of Katharine Hepburn, she’d certainly done a fair amount of stage work before she headed West. Still, she hadn’t had the formal training that Dench did (she attended a dramatic arts school of note), and she hadn’t been doing the really classic stuff. Her first major role wasn’t Ophelia for the Old Vic. Ok, fine, maybe I’m just a snob.

Anyway, it’s a really interesting glimpse into the life of Dame Judi. It’s not at all a “sit down and talk to your subject” kind of thing, rather, the biographer, John Miller, followed Dench around and watched her rehearse, talked to her directors and her peers, and has composed his sense of who she is from the stories told by others. She’s a born leader, a practical joker par excellence, and a force of nature onstage, apparently. And she’s played practically everything worth playing. She probably won an award for it. She didn’t like being Portia or Regan. She was supposed to originate a couple of roles in Cats, but she tore her Achilles tendon. She has actually directed a fair amount of plays, the first being Much Ado About Nothing, starring Kenneth Branagh (for whose company she was asked to direct) and Samantha Bond.

Yeah, I’m kind of in awe now. In all honesty, she sounds like an amazing person, but I think the biography is much more interesting in its stories about acting and the British stage. If you have an interest in any of these things (and you’re probably a Pajiban, so it’s possible?), I’d recommend this book. But only if you’ve got time to read the entire works of Shakespeare afterward.

For more of Samantha’s reviews, check out her blog, The Blog of Eternal Stench.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.

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