After practically growing up on stage in York, Judi Dench studied acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where she graduated in 1957 and immediately began acting professionally with the city’s pre-eminent theatrical company housed at the Old Vic. Dench received harsh reviews for her first public performance as Ophelia and retreated to begin a gradual rise to great acclaim with her subsequent portrayals of Katherine of France, Juliet, and Titania. These early high-wire adventures that initiated Dame Judi Dench to the world of acting lie at the heart of my thesis because I believe they forever shaped her career. Tension grew between the classical training that she refused to compromise and the increasingly naturalistic directorial tendencies of the time. The conflict between these traditional and emerging ideals affects her even now, winning respect and affection from audiences as she balances the two. Viewers relate to her spontaneous, naturalistic performances, yet she maintains the highest standards of articulation and theatricality in every role, from Shakespeare to sitcoms, from Ibsen to action films.
This work explores the youth, formal training, and earliest professional Shakespearean performances of Dame Judi Dench as a microcosm of British theater at the time. My research was completed near Sewanee, Tennessee, over the course of five years, with the English-Speaking Union of Nashville funding one summer of research in England. The appendices are presented with cooperation from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Royal Shakespeare Archive, the Old Vic Archives in Bristol and Birmingham, and the Harvard Theatre Collection, as well as personal interviews and e-mails with Judi Dench, John Barton, Cicely Berry, Barbara Jefford, and Kate Duchêne.