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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
AND FURTHERMORE

AS I WAS SAYING
By RHODA KOENIG


As the cover photo of her with her hand over her mouth suggests, and as Judi Dench states, her new book is not an autobiography. If you want to know details about her childhood and adolescence, the reason she did not marry until 37, how a star gets along with a husband and brother and daughter who are far less successful actors, or why that daughter had a child by a man she has refused to name, this is not where to find out. Now 75, she says that this book is a "follow-up" to a biography of 1998 (revised 2002) "told in my own voice, filling gaps and remembering much that John Miller did not know or did not include."
 
Yet merely opening it at random makes And Furthermore look like a book of forgetting rather than remembrance. Half a dozen times I did so, and each time I saw an anecdote or quotation that appeared in the new work, sometimes two on facing pages. Since And Furthermore takes us through Dench's life with the form, if not the expected content, of a biography (rather than simply listing isolated recollections), it is inevitable that we read again of her being a doctor's daughter in York, being cast as Ophelia at the Old Vic on graduation from drama school, meeting and marrying Michael Williams, giving birth to a daughter (Tara, known as Finty), playing many classical parts on the stage and then Queen Victoria and James Bond's "M" in films, and becoming a widow.
 
Not only, however, is the scaffolding of this book the same as that of Miller's biography, the ornaments hanging from it are identical, too. Here, again, we are told that when Dench, as Juliet, asked, "Where are my father and my mother, Nurse?" a voice from the audience rang out, "Here we are, darling, in Row H." We are also told once more that Dench told a suitor she would think about his marriage proposal, then saw him next when she was five months pregnant. Before she could speak, he said, "I take it the answer's no." Dench relives the moment when, during rehearsals, she overhears someone saying, "Judi Dench in Cabaret? No one will go to see that, dear, no one!" And the time when, starting work on another of her greatest successes, she pointed out to Peter Hall that he had cast "a menopausal dwarf" as Cleopatra. There are second-hand memories of John Gielgud's sweetness, and of theatrical practical jokes. As the old stories are told in the old language, and the tone remains guarded, the only sound of Dench's own voice here is the substitution of "this" or "the most" for definite and indefinite articles and the lazy use of "incredible" ("She made the most incredible dress" is the extent of a description).
 
In the biography Dench expressed her grief on learning that her beloved house, full of personal and theatrical memorabilia, had burnt to the ground; on repeating the story, she does not expand on her reaction to finding out that it was started by a candle burning near a curtain when she had gone away, leaving Finty in charge. And, while there are, as before, several references to her not reading plays before agreeing to do them (she was, we hear again, "so cross" to learn, on arriving at rehearsals, that Mother Courage was never off the stage), there is no explanation of this peculiarity, beyond a statement that she chooses her roles based on the people she will be working with, rather than the script. It's a non-reason that makes one wonder all the more, especially since she notes a few instances on which she did read the play.
 
Along with the lightweight anecdotes and innocuous banter, there are a few observations on acting that make one wish for more. In particular, what was it like for Dench to set herself against the idea, far more firmly held when she began her career, that a leading actress must be attractive? Her being what is now politely called "not conventionally beautiful" kept her out of films until she reached the age when looks don't matter. In the earlier book a woman tells her that the lady she is portraying was "very, very tall and very, very pretty," adding, "But I suppose you'll do it with acting." This time she follows the remark with "I got much taller from then on," a response that, like her comment on her suitability for Cleopatra, acknowledges the lack, but we never learn how she compensates for it. A discussion of how she creates the illusion of beauty and seductiveness – which she certainly has done – would have been valuable for performers and fascinating for punters, but it is just one of many things that do not appear in a book which ought, more truthfully, to have been called "As I Was Saying."
 


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