Happy Birthday, Dame Judi

Tuesday 9th December 2014

Nottingham Playhouse salutes one of its most illustrious alumni on the occasion of her 80th birthday

Before she became a Dame, before she was a Queen (Victoria or Elizabeth), Judi Dench was a saint. Appearing at Nottingham Playhouse as Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, her tomboyish portrayal drew national acclaim. The Times wrote, “She gives to Shaw’s relentless but superbly innocent saint the touching and unusual quality of a daring child.”

Of all the stars who have graced this stage, the career of Dame Judi Dench has surely been one of the most stellar and enduring. Yet she has always been happy to maintain her association with Nottingham Playhouse, acting for example as patron of our appeal to dedicate a theatre seat.

It was Artistic Director John Neville who brought the fast-rising young star to Nottingham for the 1956/57 season, a period that Dame Judi has repeatedly recalled with great affection. Nottingham Playhouse, she has written, “was what I have always believed a theatre should be.”

Even before the present building opened, she had appeared alongside Neville in a groundbreaking Nottingham Playhouse tour of West Africa, playing Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Arms and the Man in the cinemas and sports arenas of Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

Nottingham audiences were to enjoy Dame Judi’s versatility in a dazzling run of plays. Besides Joan of Arc, she played the equally holy Isabella in a startling modern-dress production of Measure for Measure. Bursting into a night-club in full habit proved an interesting test: “I asked John Neville how on earth I was to do this. He replied that I was to come on like any nun would come on after-hours in a night-club.”

In addition, the young star featured in a new play, The Astrakhan Coat, and played the title character in Wycherley’s bawdy Restoration comedy The Country Wife. Finally, she and Edward Woodward appeared in a production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives notable for the glee with which the two sparring divorcees threw insults, crockery and furniture at one another.

It’s clear from accounts of these formative years in Nottingham that Judi Dench’s famous sense of mischief was fully nurtured and employed here – in the playfulness of her characterisation, but also in playful moments off-stage. Or others that were on-stage but off-script, like the time she surreptiously joined a line of soldiers in Richard II, reducing her comrades to a wobbling mass of suppressed mirth. This is among the anecdotes recalled in today’s Nottingham Post’s article about her Playhouse years.

As busy at 80 as ever, Dame Judi Dench has lost none of that sense of fun or zest for performance. Long may they continue. We wish her many happy returns.