wed 08/12/2021

Bah Humbug: Judi Dench - the greatest stage actor ever? | reviews, news & interviews

Bah Humbug: Judi Dench - the greatest stage actor ever?

Bah Humbug: Judi Dench - the greatest stage actor ever?

Does the stage and screen actress really deserve such an overblown accolade?

Seems we’re living through a silly season. There are rumours afoot that our PM’s Big Society is nothing other than a fig leaf for a chaos theory of how to run society, ie let the devil take the hindmost. And in the arts we’ve got theatre’s esteemed trade paper declaring, in a much-publicised puff - organised through a star-studded panel of the Great and the Good and “hundreds of readers voting from a list of 10 actors” - that Dame Judi Dench is The Greatest Stage Actor of all time.

Well, good on The Stage. Nothing like stirring up debate to draw attention to yourself, and heaven knows live theatre needs all the attention it can get in an age where 20 million prefer staying in to watch The X Factor than trudging through snow and ice to confront a spluttering transport system.

In any case, it's hardly a stage secret that Dame “Dudi” is possibly the most popular stage actor of our time. I don’t think you’d have to put it out to your nearest focus group to establish that. Dame Dudi has proved herself gloriously impervious to age, enjoying a late-flowering Indian summer of a career. But “of all time”? Give me a break.

Edmund_KeanAre we including 19th-century actors here? Do any of our glittering panel who drew up the nominations remember seeing Sarah Bernhardt on stage? If so, they’re being awfully discreet about their ages. How about the likes of Edmund Kean (pictured right, as Sir Giles Overreach) of whom Coleridge wrote: “Seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”? Are we really seriously comparing Dame Dudi’s undoubted luminous qualities with past glories who, it seems, have slipped delicately from view?

The point is even more forcibly made if we look at the illustrious list from which Dench was plucked: Maggie Smith, Mark Rylance, Ian McKellen, Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, John Gielgud, Michael Gambon, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson. The sharp-eyed may notice a certain communality between them. All, even those no longer with us, have been prominent in the last 40 years of the 20th century. Some – Gielgud, Richardson – started to make their mark even earlier, in the Thirties and early Forties.

Peggy_Ashcroft2But there’s a strange amnesia/myopia at work here. Of Dame Peggy Ashcroft (pictured left in A Passage to India), who died in 1991 and who was regarded in her lifetime as one of the jewels in the British theatrical crown alongside Olivier and his esteemed contemporaries, there is no mention.

Ashcroft’s range, covering leading Shakespearean roles such as Rosalind (As You Like It), Portia (The Merchant of Venice), Imogen (Cymbeline), Cleopatra and, indelibly, Queen Margaret in Peter Hall’s towering 1964 Wars of the Roses - not to mention roles in Chekhov and Ibsen and a landmark Hester in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea - must surely equal that of Dench’s.

Irene_WorthIrene Worth (pictured right in a production of Beckett's Happy Days), another peerless actor of majestic subtlety and variety and one of Peter Brook’s favourites, is also overlooked. The still under-rated Michael Redgrave (Vanessa’s dad), Sybil Thorndike, Ian Richardson, Ian Holm and Donald Wolfit might also nudge themselves into my list. And whatever happened to international stars such as Madeleine Renaud, Jean-Louis Barrault, Maximillian Schell, Anna Magnani or the great Greek actress Irene Papas?

Granted, neither the panel nor the readers of The Stage possess Doctor Who's powers to travel back in time. Nor, it seems, travel abroad. What we have here really is a nonsense, albeit a festive one to lighten the gloom as we approach the winter solstice and the shortest day. Nonetheless it begs some serious questions. The alarmingly parochial picture that emerges shows how incapable we have become of addressing anything beyond our own time frame, or beyond our borders. We are indeed an island race, our little world surrounded by a sea (to corrupt Shakespeare).

Given the high quality (and status) of the panel of theatre luminaries who compiled the nominations - former National Theatre boss Sir Richard Eyre (no slouch himself when it comes to ruminative judgements), Nica Burns, the shrewd West End theatre owner, producer and president of SOLT (the Society of London Theatres), legendary international theatre producer Thelma Holt and Vicky Featherstone, the young, visionary artistic director of the peripatetic National Theatre of Scotland - I have to ask myself why nobody thought to rein in the “of all time” tag. The hyperbole simply renders the whole premise laughable.

JudiDench_TitaniaMaybe this was intentional; a holiday jest, no more, no less. But let us not forget that theatre is quintessentially – at least in word-locked England - about text: words are gold dust. One of the undoubted glories of Judi Dench has been her exquisite delivery of Shakespeare. Her account of Titania’s speech about the natural disasters provoked by the fairy queen's schism with Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pictured left in the acclaimed1962 RSC production) remains a touchstone for our time - for our time being the salient point.

By all means dub her one of our greatest stage actors alongside Peggy Ashcroft, Paul Scofield, Maggie Smith, Laurence Olivier and the rest. Just don’t insult our intelligence. And don’t demean the actors who have gone before but who happen to have fallen out of eye and ear-shot of the fickle, or just those who have little historical perspective to draw upon.

  1. Who would be your Top 10 favourite stage actors – and what would be your criteria for choosing them?
  2. Must you have seen them physically on stage?
  3. Should there be a cut-off date?

Answers on a postcard or to:




A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rose Theatre (2010). Judi Dench is a glorious Gloriana in Peter Hall's flat production

Jane Eyre (2011). Dench plays kindly housekeeper to Mr Rochester in invigorating version of the novel with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska

Skyfall (2012). Dench's M (pictured) is written out of the franchise in possibly the best ever Bond movie

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012). The Dames have it in John Madden's tale of British travellers abroad

J. Edgar (2012). Dench as Hoover's mother lacks commitment to her American accent in flawed Eastwood biopic

Philomena (2013). Judi Dench touches the heart once again in the Dame's latest bid for Oscar glory

Peter and Alice, Noël Coward Theatre (2013). Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw step through the looking glass in Michael Grandage's elegiac production of John Logan's new play

Spectre (2015). Dench's M cameos in a video message beyond the grave as Daniel Craig and Sam Mendes carry on without her

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). The expats are back in that rare sequel that betters its predecessor

The Winter's Tale, Garrick Theatre (2015). Judi Dench brings gravitas to Kenneth Branagh's West End season opener

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses - Richard III (2016). Dench is a matchless veteran opposite Benedict Cumberbatch chills's crook-backed king


If The Stage poll's terms of reference had been more measured I might have voted in it myself; but its crass wording meant that only numpties (and close relatives of the candidates) could possibly take it seriously. Among this constituency Dame Judi was a shoo-in from the off because she's the nominee with the highest TV and movie profile - and, of course, a National Treasure. Thank you, Carole; this is surely the greatest piece of arts journalism of all time.

I enjoyed this article. With regards to the list, this seems to be just one another of those superficial lists that newspapers or journalists establish to stirr things up. Does this mean? Who is the greatest actor or actress readers and critics have ever seen in their lives? All centuries taken into account? Have they been around when Ellen Terry was performing or Sarra Siddons? In England? Internationally? Of all times? First, can we compare an actor and an actress? That is they usually perform different parts (although sometimes you have an actress who performs male parts and vice-versa), so it would be fair to say that one can establish a separate list for greatest actress and another one for greatest actor. Second, I am glad you included Dame Peggy Ashcroft in your article who was suspiciously and inexplicably ommitted from the list. Because if we make an effort to establish a short list of great stage actors of the British theatre in the 20th and 21th century, Aschroft would certainly be among the very top actresses as well as Edith Evans or Sybil Thonrdike. Of the actresses of Judy Dench's generation my pick would be Vanessa Redgrave as I believe she is the truest and most heartbreaking actress of her generation (and I would add I have ever seen on stage) and in a way she is a successor of Aschroft a most true and luminous actress. One more thing about the superficial character of the list establishing the so-called greatest stage actors of all times. It reminds me of those recent lists we see all the time for example "who is the greatest film actor or actress or the most beautiful". People tend ton have a short memory even let us say in film whereas one can see older films (if they still exist) and witness the greatness of cinematic greats of the past. Howerever, if someone asks the readers of a paper today "Who is the greatest film actress of all times" it is probable that people willt end to vote for someone like Meryl Streep (a great actress for certain), but what about the incomparable Greta Garbo, or other marvellous actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Lillian Gish or Simone Signoret to name just a few names of the past. The same, if there is a poll of "The most beautiful actress of all times" a clear favorite would be the enchanting Audrey Hepburn. But can one say that Audrey is the most beautiful? What about Garbo the ultimate ideal of beauty or Ava Gardner or Rita Hayworth? So I think the problem with such lists is that they remain on the surface of things, they fail to go deeper and end up being superficial or just "Too much ado for nothing".

This pseudo competition should not have happened. The winner, Dame Judi or otherwise, is put in the awful position of having to be gracious while being made to look ridiculous. It's the competition itself that is ridiculous.

Have these people ever seen a REDGRAVE on stage!? It's bad enough Dench won her Oscar over Lynn for a constipated & humdrum FIVE minutes in Shakespeare in Love! I'm sure you think I speak of Vanessa and I certainly do over Dench. I have only seen her once on stage (The Year of Magical Thinking) and it was a few days after I lost my Aunt. My Aunt was in every way both my true Mother & Father. Not many children get to see Maggie Smith on stage before they are 12. I did and it was because of my Aunt. When it comes to Vanessa in The Year of Magical Thinking, Vanessa was not acting on that stage! She was living the hell that comes from losing a loved one and she allowed us to see it and certainly feel it. I could never sit through that show again. It would bring back so much of my loss and leave my soul & heart irreparable. However, I was lucky enough to see Lynn quite a few times and best of all in her one woman shows, Shakespeare for My Father and Nightingale. I still can't put into words what that woman gave to us on stage. Something so pure and true....unabashedly raw. A lone woman on stage was able to show the halcyon life can bring but also the gehenna. Perhaps dearest in my heart is the "actors studios" Lynn would give. They were open to any and ALL and many times she would (at her own doing & expense) bring in people who lived in nursing homes nearby. I can't speak for many others(Olivier, Gielgud, Gambon, or Scofield). I'm still in my 20's and sadly was born too late to see some of the other greats. However, my personal experiences have been blessed enough to include the Redgraves and Smith. So I speak of what I know. I'm not saying Dench does not deserve accolades but certainly NOT this title if they must toss it around. In my experiences with her stage acting, sometimes I left the theatre knowing I was better for having seen such. Other times it was awkwardly clear that Dench would have preferred to be any other place but with us peons.

to the attention of Bizarroworld I share your entousiasm about Vanessa Redgrave. Of all the performers I have seen on stage, she was the most luminous, truthful and human in her acting, the one who could easily drw tears even from a statue. Her performances in "Orpheus Descending" (the first time I saw her on stage in 1989 in New York), "When she danced" (an unforgettable Isadora Duncan), "John Gabriel Borgman" (with another stage great Paul Scofield) or "The three sisters" (co-starring with Lynn Redrave and Jemma Redgrave) are among the most precious gifts I got from my thetare experience. I also have a lot of wonderful memories from seing Maggie Smith in New York, a marvellous actress. So if I could chose the greatest stage actress I have seen this would definitely be Vanessa Redgrave.

Your article is so true about accolades'" the greatest" There are many outstanding actors from all eras! Some character actors were better than the stars of the eras. Judi Dench is gifted no doubt. "As time goes by" is a real gem made possible by a great supporting cast. James Mason is one of my favorites. Its always dangerous comparing apples to oranges by the short sighted. Its a ridiculous analogy. Thank you.

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