Upon arriving in Rome in 1998 to make Tea with Mussolini with the director Franco Zeffirelli and a cast including Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin and Cher, Dame Judi Dench and her co-star Joan Plowright headed for their hotel, which, as Dench recalls, “was appalling, but I hadn’t been in [my room] for more than five minutes when the phone rang, and it was Joan. ‘Darling, we’re leaving here; it’s a knocking-shop, I’ve heard two at it on my way up.’
“We went to the Majestic, and [Joan] insisted on seeing the rooms. She was so wonderful; she said, ‘Lady Olivier would like a suite of rooms . . . at least three; because Maggie won’t want to go to that knocking-shop.”
Dropping the name of one’s late, legendary husband in order to secure scarce high-end accommodation at a moment’s notice: Dench’s charming autobiography And Furthermore is laden with such anecdotes, harvested from a stage and screen career of near-unrivalled longevity and depth.
Born in York in 1934, Dench first won notice as an actress in her early 20s, performing as Juliet in a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure at the Old Vic in London.
Her productivity is exhausting simply to read about; by my reckoning (based on a superbly detailed chronology of parts at the back of the book), she has appeared in an average of three plays a year since 1957, in addition to acting in television – including a nine-year stint in As Time Goes By – and 35 films.
A lesser woman would surely have succumbed to burn-out in about 1962, but Dench is made of stern stuff, though she does, blessedly, reveal that after snapping her Achilles tendon in 1981 and taking a forced respite with her family in Majorca, she and her husband, the actor Michael Williams, began a tradition of annual summer holidays (“absolutely essential to get the batteries going again.”).
(The Majorcan sojourn was, however, typically Denchian, in that another guest of the friends they were staying with turned out to be the composer Stephen Sondheim. He was introduced to Dench and Williams as ‘Steve’ and it wasn’t until he later played the piano that the couple twigged as to his identity.)
And Furthermore, for all its many delights, has its shortcomings as autobiography, though readers are warned of the brevity of content about Dench’s personal life in a preface, in which she says she does not consider it an autobiography, given that much of her life was covered in a 1998 70th-birthday book assembled by her friends.
Taken as partial memoir, then, it is close to perfect, and the behind-the-scenes-and-stages information the reader finds herself yearning for is that much richer when it is found. Ironically, perhaps, for an actress, Dench is not given to emotional declarations, and the clear-eyed chapter reflecting on the two years she spent nursing her husband through terminal illness is brought to a moving conclusion with a quote from the director Trevor Nunn’s address at Williams’ funeral.
About what was clearly a very happy marriage, Nunn said that when the couple married, “Mike said to me he was in the grip of feelings beyond any happiness he had ever dreamed of . . . A fine romance indeed.”
In life as in art, Dench is evidently a woman given to exemplary performance.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz