Veteran Shakespeare actor, Jeffery Dench

jeffery denchI’ve just heard the sad news that veteran Royal Shakespeare Company actor Jeffery Dench has died. He will be remembered fondly, and greatly missed, by thousands who saw him play a mind-boggling range of roles on the RSC’s stages.

His career with the RSC began in the 1960s when he was in the company’s landmark Wars of the Roses, followed by the David Warner Hamlet. He quickly established himself in comedy roles such as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night and Master Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

He had a particular talent for playing old men: one of the first things I saw him play was Adam in As You Like It in 1977/8, opening the play by getting in some wrestling practice with his Orlando (Peter McEnery/James Laurenson), despite his apparent age. Again in Merry Wives, he played Justice Shallow in both 1992 and, his last performance, in 2006. Both these have Shakespearean resonance: the faithful old servant Adam is supposed to have been a role written by Shakespeare for himself, and Shallow is involved in the discussions that might relate to the Lucy family of Charlecote. In one of the Histories, he also played a character called Thomas Lucy.

There was plenty of non-Shakespeare too: the Troll King to Derek Jacobi’s Peer Gynt in 1982, and the Water Rat in at least one of the revivals of Toad of Toad Hall.

One of the conspirators in the 1979 Julius Caesar

One of the conspirators in the 1979 Julius Caesar

It wasn’t all comedy: in 1974/5 he played Gloucester in Buzz Goodbody’s adaptation of King Lear, and as well as Pistol in Henry V he played a multitude of lords and soldiers in Terry Hands’ magnificent cycle of all three parts of Henry VI in 1977/8.

I came to live in Stratford in 1979 and saw all the plays repeatedly. He seemed to be in everything. As well as Brabantio in Othello and Cinna the conspirator in Julius Caesar he played Cymbeline in the play of the same name, his sister Judi playing his daughter Imogen. His most enjoyable performance of the year for me, though, was the doubling of Antiochus and the Pander in Pericles at The Other Place. In charge of the brothel where the innocent heroine Marina is held he was both frighteningly grotesque and blackly comic.

In the back row, as so often, Jeffery Dench as one of the company in Nicholas Nickleby

In the back row, as so often, Jeffery Dench as one of the company in Nicholas Nickleby

As part of the 1979 Stratford company he automatically became part of the company for what for me has been the RSC’s outstanding achievement, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, staged initially at the Aldwych in 1980-81, subsequently in New York, and filmed for Channel 4. Like almost everyone in the case he played many characters, though again most memorably the repellent old suitor Arthur Gride.

When not playing grotesque old men, he brought humour, warmth and integrity to  his parts. As a member of the audience, seeing Jeffery Dench’s name on the cast list was a guarantee of quality. Shakespeare did write brilliant leading roles for Burbage and others, but he also wrote for a known company of talented professionals. The RSC has been fortunate to have among its regulars a number of high-quality actors, safe hands that could carry the plays along with distinction. Jeffery Dench was one of those, and if there were to be a late twentieth-century version of the page in the First Folio “The Names of the Principal Actors in all These Plays”, his name would be on the list.

Full details of his RSC career can be found by searching by name on the RSC Performance Database

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11 Responses to Veteran Shakespeare actor, Jeffery Dench

  1. Richard Morris says:

    As you say a very talented actor and a real gentleman in every sense. Our condolences go to his wife Ann and sister Judy.

  2. rosemary warwick corvin says:

    lovely blog he will be missed a true gent and lovely actor

  3. David Warner says:

    Jeffery…Thank You for all your encouragement and words of wisdom……A warm ,kind, gentle funny man….Thoughts with Ann,Judi and All the Family…dw

  4. Kristen McDermott says:

    He was a member of the touring RSC mini-company that visited my university in 1978, right after the success of Nicholas Nickleby. He (as well as Cherie Lunghi, also in the company) was so gracious and warm and helpful as he coached our tiny drama department through a rehearsal of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. I remember his insights into the connection between our North Carolina accents and Elizabethan English, and his masterful performance of Lear in workshop. I honor his memory.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for this lovely comment. Many people remember his unassuming kindness as well as his acting ability.

  5. Cyndy says:

    Thank uou for the lovely blog on Jeffrey Dench .With deep sadness to Ann and sister and family.

  6. Tim Raistrick says:

    At his memorial service today it was evident that we were remembering and honouring not only a great and respected actor but a man who was loved by those who knew him a lot or a little.

    He seemed to relish all he did and thus to enthuse those he met.

    Today was a great send-off for a great man who I feel privileged to have had as a friend.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Many thanks for your sensitive comment Tim. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to get to the service today. Jeffery Dench will indeed be very fondly remembered for both his acting and personal qualities.

  7. Barbara Holmes says:

    Beautiful tribute to Jeffrey Dench, a wonderful actor and lovely man. My husband, an actor, Denis Holmes, appeared in many plays with Jeffrey when they were both members of the RSC. In 1989, Denis and I and our two daughters, Jennifer and Rebecca, moved to the United States where my family lives. For many years Denis worked in the USA appearing in numerous Broadway productions and in many renowned theatre companies throughout America. Sadly, on May 27th 2013, my beloved Denis passed away just a few days before his 92 birthday. Your wonderful remarks about Jeffrey Dench brought back happy memories of my husband’s performances on the RSC stages with Jeffrey Dench and of the friendship with him that my husband so enjoyed.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Dear Barbara
      Thanks so much for your post. Although he worked with the RSC before I came to work with the RSC’s archives I remember his name very well from photographs of great productions like the 1973/4 Richard II directed by John Barton. I’m so pleased the post brought back some happy memories for you.