I've been in the audience for a number of Judy Dench's live performances and seen countless filmed performances both on the big and small screens. I can't think of a single one I have not enjoyed. The fact that she is in something is enough of a recommendation for me to watch it. I am not the only one: She is perhaps the biggest draw on the West End stage.
Last week I got my hands on Henry V, where she plays Mistress Quickly (stunningly well, by the way). Her Lady Macbeth was definitive. There were other great Shakespeare performances and a magnificent Lady Bracknell (on stage).
What do we experience when we see her perform?
How much is her, and how much the script?
I suspect her justifiable fame is due to an ability to be 'Everywoman'. There is something within her which allows her to access those elements of personality and character which are constants and then to communicate these elements to an audience. She manages to make us social creatures - to care for another human, to think about their actions and to respond to the situation s/he finds him/herself in.
But there is a division to be found in these characters.
We talk of Judy Dench's Lady Macbeth or of her Sally Bowles (Yes, long before Lisa made the role hers, Judy did it on stage). There are alternative interpretations, not from the same actress, but from other people. It gives a certain flexibility to our view of the character - it allows us to seperate the character out from the human being in a way.
When we watch her in something like As Time Goes By, she is the character, Jane - our image is of the character as a part of the human, as in some way a part of her, Judy Dench. There is no alternative. If we watch it again, it is still the same person.
Not only that, the character, Jane, becomes a part of her which is in contrast with other parts which are her: Like in A Fine Romance where she plays another character in a situation comedy.
Which brings me to an interesting point.
One of the great shifts in audience perceptions must have happened shortly after Shakespeare left the King's Men and his death. Up 'til then, all the great roles had been written for a single actor to play - and a great many of the minor roles for specific actors too.
When you saw Macbeth on stage, he was always played by the actor who played Macbeth: Lady Macbeth would be the same boy, Banquo, the same, etc. These characters were aspects of a real man.
Not only that, Macbeth would be played by the same actor as Hamlet. And possibly the same actor as Shylock. These characters were aspects of one man - not alternative possible interpretations - but actual elements of a real human.
Lady Macbeth was Ophelia, was Cleopatra. These characters are elements of Everywoman.
We lost something when other actors started to take on the roles - something I think is key to understanding Shakespeare's scripts:
Each man in his time plays many parts.