(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/20.)
In the case of Judi Dench, one is confronted by an embarrassment of riches. I could choose her famous 1976 Lady Macbeth, opposite Ian McKellen, that suggested a terrified apprehension of the satanic powers the thane’s wife has invoked. In that same Stratford season, Dench was also an unforgettable Beatrice to Donald Sinden’s Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing: this was a woman whose bright-eyed merriment concealed a badly bruised heart.
If I finally select her Cleopatra in Peter Hall’s 1987 National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra, it’s because the performance contained everything that makes Dench a great actor: her deeply Shakespearean ability to blend the tragic and the comic, her lightning shifts of mood, her capacity to make the verse sound as it sprang from her imagination.