Judi, Judi, Judi, Oh, How We Love You

Judi Dench, you may have heard, is starring in David Hare’s Amy’s View , and nothing could give us greater pleasure than the sight of the Dame herself returning to the New York stage for the first time in 40 years. You must forgive the brevity of this love letter to her, but if I had limitless words they would not be enough to express what this lovely, great actress means to us.

If you’re British (as I am), you grew up with Judi Dench. The English love their actors, but Ms. Dench is regarded as one of the family. In a sense, she’s everyone’s thoroughly middle-class sister or favorite aunt–the one who became famous, to everyone’s surprise, including her own.

She’s very unpretentious and very English. “Are you usually so reserved?” a dope of a TV interviewer asked her after the Academy Awards. “No, I’m not,” she replied, a little crossly. “And we’ve only just met.”

She’s immensely likable and warm, an easy laugher (as most theater people are). You would trust her with your secrets. She’s an excellent listener, as she is on stage, like a priest in a confessional. And as an actress she can do absolutely anything–but nobody knows exactly how. She gets the terrors, yet everything she does appears effortless. She convinces us that great acting is a great mystery.

She plays an actress, Esme, in Amy’s View . “Mummy is brilliant at playing comedy,” says Esme’s daughter Amy to her boyfriend. “I’m usually best at playing genteel,” Esme replies in amused, ironic form. “With something interesting happening underneath.” Which reminds us of Tom Stoppard’s acceptance speech during the Oscars: “I feel like Roberto Benigni underneath .” The English specialize in layers.

At heart, Amy’s View is about theater and acting, in noble defense of imagination versus literalism (and theater versus film). Esme defends her calling in her own idealistic fashion: “People say, ‘Oh, everyone should go to the theater.’ Why should they? We don’t want an audience being brought in by force. And for us, there’s nothing more disheartening than playing to people who are there because they’ve been told it’s doing them good.”

“Quite,” says Dominic, who finds theater irrelevant, like some fossil in a museum. He’s her future son-in-law and nemesis who goes from fledgling film critic to media star to Quentin Tarantino-esque movie director in four acts.

“Let’s play to people who actually like it,” Esme continues, defending the theater. “And if there aren’t very many, so be it. But don’t come because you’ve been told to. No, that won’t do at all.”

We immediately think: Quite right! It certainly won’t do. Ms. Dench’s reading of the line encourages no argument. Besides, her acting is characterized by its fierce commitment and honesty. There are other clues to the mysterious art of Judi Dench in the play, which David Hare wrote for her. “You say one thing but you’re thinking another. If you can’t do that, then truly you shouldn’t be doing the job,” Esme goes on to explain. Ambiguity, like irony, is another English specialty in a nation of virtual actors.

Esme’s rival, a showy, craven actress named Deirdre, “practically goes down on the critics.” But Esme doesn’t. Her secret is “to please without seeming to try.” Later, in the final–and best–act in the play, an apprentice actor in his early 20’s asks Esme how she magically draws in the audience so that they somehow make the effort, not her.

“It comes with the passage of time …”

She shrugs slightly. “There it is.”

We embrace Ms. Dench from her first entrance, though she isn’t playing a particularly “lovable” role. As mums go, the witty Esme can be a selfish old cow, certainly overpossessive, actressy, spoilt, living in some artificial dream world in life and on stage. Her daughter asks her to “take control” of her life, which is greeted with the contempt of an individualist who also rejects fashionably easy concepts such as “closure.”

“What a meaningless cliché,” Esme angrily protests. “If you ask me why men always make such fools of themselves, it’s because they’re in love with the ludicrous notion that there’s such a thing as to be in control.… Who’s in control? Finally? I ask you. The answer is no one. No one! If you don’t know that, you know nothing.”

Yet Ms. Dench’s Esme will ultimately take control of her life–going from apparently carefree, nicely self-indulgent middle age to bewildered penury to a sublime act of purest theatrical benediction 16 years later. Even in this quite light, near-Shavian drama of love, death and the theater, Ms. Dench achieves a radiance and transforming alchemy that might convince us that Amy’s View is really a Chekhovian family tragedy. (Some say it is, with a nod to The Seagull .) But the notes she hits are phenomenal.

Her boisterous comic gift can spontaneously change in a second into the explosively feral, like a cultivated English rose with a mouth on her. She can make us laugh at dopey, ridiculous things, or stop an entire scene with a glance, or reveal the elemental essence of acting in absolute stillness as she makes up her immobile face in a bleak dressing room, as if painting on a mask. A mask upon a mask–of what? Grief, rectitude, resilience perhaps.

But then, this is an actress, height 5 feet nothing, who can somehow convince us she’s tall. Everything about her seems to fly in the face of all boring logic. Said not to be a natural Cleopatra, her 1987 Cleopatra with Anthony Hopkins triumphed in its capricious emotional magnetism and command. (She knocked a messenger flying with a right hook.) Believed to be too cozy, too “nice,” to play Lady Macbeth opposite Ian McKellen a generation ago, she was the most coldly terrifying Lady M. I’ve ever seen. For good measure, in younger days she also played Sally Bowles in Cabaret , though she can’t sing. She knows how to, which is another story.

Her Esme in Amy’s View seems like a breeze for her. It’s meant to, of course. There are other actors in the play, too–Samantha Bond as Amy uncannily resembles Ms. Dench, making the mother-daughter blood feuds all the more poignant; the American actor Tate Donovan not only plays Dominic with a perfect English accent, he could scarcely be better as a media ignoramus on the make, patronized by Esme’s “permanent leer of good taste.” The veteran Ronald Pickup is delightful as the pickled old lush and well-meaning neighbor, Frank, an epitome of English decency; Anne Pitoniak and Maduka Steady complete the fine ensemble in Richard Eyre’s first-rate production.

Amy’s View itself is about many diverse themes–too many! It’s about family life, of course, and bad marriages; high culture versus lowish culture; art versus money; England as theme park and boorish New Labor mediocrity; the role that chance, or fate, plays in our lives; and how we fail to make amends.

There are times when Mr. Hare is deftly skating on thin ice. The theme park metaphor was tired well before even Julian Barnes used it in his latest novel, England, England ; as an apostle of non-elitist “low” culture, they don’t come much more blatant than Dominic. I also found the unexplained death of Amy too convenient; and evil journalists (and critics) are, by now, a David Hare vaudevillian turn from way back when, which won’t do at all.

But that final act and breathtaking coup de théâtre are alone worth everything. Here Esme has at last found her reality–the unadorned backstage reality of theater, which is now her only home, her vocation. She’s alone. “Fair enough, then. So we’re alone,” go her last words. It is a beautiful moment we witness, a blessing and form of baptism, which speaks to us of such a profound belief in theater that it amounts to a religion, a mysterious renewal, a way of life.

There’s no debate any longer about “Is theater dead?” Or “Why bother?” To the contrary, theater in that glorious moment is the only thing that makes sense of life to Esme, to the audience and, one suspects, to the incomparable Judi Dench.