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Hare's Breath of Life — with Dench and Smith — Opens in West End


Playbill Online
October 15, 2002

A West End Dream team comes together at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket on Oct. 15 when Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench open in David Hare's new play, The Breath of Life — with the largest advance sale ever for a straight play in the West End.

Directed by Howard Davies, whose last great success was the Alan Rickman/Lindsay Duncan Private Lives in London and Broadway, The Breath of Life is about two strong women linked by an absent man — husband to one, lover of the other.

Designed by William Dudley and lit by Hugh Vanstone, this is the hottest box-office ticket in town and promises to be not just a commercial success but a critical one, given Hare's reputation — his Amy's View, which also starred Judi Dench, was an extraordinarily powerful play about the redemptive power of theatre and won rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

Both Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are as successful on film as onstage. Judi Dench won an Oscar for her performance in Shakespeare in Love, and Maggie Smith plays a major character in the Harry Potter film series.

—By Paul Webb Theatrenow



October 15, 2002


Both Oscar winners. Both widowed. And, from tonight, both on the same stage. But is Dame Maggie or DameJudiour greatest national treasure?

BY: Michael Coveney

THERE'S nothing like a Dame on the London stage, and tonight the West End will have two as Judi Dench and Maggie Smith appear together in David Hare's new play, The Breath Of Life. Both on and off stage, their lives have amazing parallels. Here, Daily Mail theatre critic MICHAEL COVENEY makes an affectionate comparison...

Family background

BORN within three weeks of each other in 1934 (Judi on 9 December, Maggie on 28 December), they have similar backgrounds, though Judi is a notch up the social ladder.

Her father was a doctor in York, where she attended the Mount School.

Maggie's dad was a laboratory technician from Newcastle, her mother Scottish. She was born in Ilford, Essex, but the family moved to Oxford at the outbreak of war, where Maggie mixed with theatrical undergraduates including the future producer Ned Sherrin.

Judi joined the Old Vic in 1957. In the same year, Maggie appeared in a revue with Kenneth Williams, having already made a name for herself on Broadway.

Both have two older brothers.

Maggie: 2/5 Judi: 3/5

Marriage and men

JUDI'S 30-year marriage to fellow actor Michael Williams was bedevilled by her fame and his lack of it. But love saw them through, overriding previous affairs with actors Leonard Rossiter and Charles Thomas. The couple were inseparable until Michael's death from cancer aged 65 last year.

Maggie's rock was writer Beverly Cross, whom she married in 1975 after a tempestuous marriage to actor Robert Stephens. Beverly died in 1998, aged 66.

Both Dames have no shortage of admirers. Judi loves almost everyone, from directors Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall to actors Jim Broadbent and Kevin Spacey.

Maggie thrives on solitude, but occasionally kicks up her heels with best friends Joan Plowright and producer Helen Montagu.

Maggie: 2/5 Judi: 2/5


DAME JUDI is a late arrival on the Hollywood scene, scooping the pool as two Queens - Victoria and Elizabeth I - in Mrs Brown and Shakespeare In Love respectively.

In the latter, she appeared for eight minutes and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Maggie won her first Oscar as Best Actress in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie 30 years ago, and followed up with a second as Best Supporting Actress in California Suite opposite Michael Caine.

Best performances on celluloid?

Maggie in The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne, Judi in Iris.

Both have hit the serial blockbuster jackpot: Judi completing her fourth Bond movie as a deadpan, bureaucratic M, Maggie booked for the Harry Potter series as Minerva McGonagall, Harry's witch-like deputy head.

Maggie: 3/5 Judi: 2/5

Looks and style

JUDI is an English rose, a woman of light and fickle humour with sudden bursts of deep, buried sadness.

Maggie is an angular, spiky character with expressive elbows and wrists, and an ability to turn emotions on a sixpence.

Judi's mellifluous voice is known for having a glorious shiver, with a permanent sob or crack in it; Maggie's is equally capable of snapping like a ginger biscuit or cawing like a crow.

Maggie is the taller and slimmer of the two.

Both have had the odd nip and tuck facially, but not so you'd notice too much.

Judi always looks comfortably dressed; Maggie stylishly so, her lustrous red hair always perfectly bobbed.

Maggie: 3/5 Judi: 2/5

The people's choice

A WALKOVER round. The nation loves Judi like they loved the Queen Mother. And doing two excellent TV sitcoms (A Fine Romance with late husband Michael Williams, and As Time Goes By with Geoffrey Palmer), hasn't hurt.

She visibly supports good causes and was the 9/11 victims' families' choice to read at the Westminster Abbey memorial service. She also launches ships and breaks the champagne bottle so the contents fly back in her face: Judi Drench.

Maggie is so fiercely private, you sometimes wonder if she'd risk being caught signing an autograph - let alone giving to charity. And she'd not thank you for drawing attention to the fact if she did (which she does).

Judi: 5/5 Maggie: 0/5

Toe-curling tributes

STEPHEN FRY once said of Judi: 'I believe that railings should be built around her so that all may admire her in an orderly and respectful fashion.'

Kate Winslet, who starred with her as the late Iris Murdoch in the film Iris, added: 'I would work with Judi if I had to be a tea lady hovering in the back.' Judi says of Maggie: 'She does things in such a daring way that she leaves me standing - and she leaves me laughing.' And Alan Bennett says that, like him, Maggie is very lugubrious, seeing things as disastrous and hilarious in equal measure.

He has said that he believes that 'critics who condescend to her should consider themselves lucky to be living in her time'.

Judi: 2/5 Maggie: 2/5

Great roles

HERE, although she was a brilliant founder member of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre, the reticence of Maggie's personality lets her down.

She has played the great Shakespearean roles - Rosalind, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra - but only in Canada, where she fled after her first marriage to Robert Stephens broke down in the 1970s.

In Restoration comedy, she has been an unbeatable Millamant in The Way Of The World, and in tragedy, has played an extraordinary Hedda Gabler.

But Judi has worked consistently with both the RSC and the National, giving definitive performances as Beatrice in Much Ado, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra.

Judi: 4/5 Maggie: 1/5

The handbag challenge

BOTH our actresses have made memorable assaults on the iconic role of Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest - supposedly the property in recent times of Edith Evans.

'A handbag!' is the Becher's Brook of comic lines, when Lady B is told of Jack's improvised cradle on Victoria Station. Both Judi and Maggie drove a coach and horses straight through, getting the big laugh a few moments later.

In 1982, Judi discovered new elements of forgetfulness and flirtatiousness in a brilliant revival at the National.

When Maggie played the role in the West End, she revealed the vulnerable little girl. A close call, this, but Judi counter-punched with a magisterial performance in the recent film.

Judi: 3/5 Maggie: 2/5

Bringing up the babies

ACTRESS Finty Williams, Judi's daughter, is the joy of her life, even though Finty was eight months pregnant with Sam (now five) before she told her mother. And the father's identity is a well-kept secret.

Finty now lives with Sam and Judi in a leafy, cosy hideaway.

Maggie's two sons by Robert Stephens, both actors, were in effect raised by their stepfather Beverly. The eldest, Chris Larkin (he had to take a new name as an Equity member, and liked Larkin's poetry), is a talented character actor. Toby Stephens, now married to an American, is a sulphurous romantic lead.

Maggie lives in an Edwardian villa off the Fulham Road in London, and in a beautiful farmhouse in West Sussex.

Judi: 2/5 Maggie: 3/5

The funny things they say

ON STAGE, in an all-star revival at the Haymarket, Judi said: 'May heaven strike me dead if I ever appear in an all-star revival.' And once, when I interviewed her over lunch at a Chinese restaurant, I failed the audition: 'You keep spilling food on the tablecloth. I must make a note never to cast you as a footman or a waiter. You have no social graces whatsoever.' Maggie's jaundiced view of the world makes her think funny without trying.

When writing her biography, I was referred to as 'the premature obituarist'.

And most recently, in Gosford Park, when Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello launched into yet another song at the piano, she turned to an enthusiastic admirer and hissed: 'Don't encourage him. He's got a very large repertoire.'

Judi: 2/5 Maggie: 3/5

THE POINTS total up as follows: Judi with 27, Maggie with 21. I hereby declare Judi Dench the winner - a victory generously conceded by Maggie, no doubt, as a mere curtain-raiser to the main match to be slugged out before a paying public and the critics . . . let battle commence!



Tuesday, 15 October, 2002, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK

British dames double up on stage
BBC Online Article

Two of Britain's best-loved actresses, Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, are taking to the stage together for the first time to perform a West End world première.  Their appearance in the specially-written play The Breath of Life by David Hare, which opens on Tuesday, has already almost sold out.  Producer Robert Fox has not taken out any display advertisements for the play at London's Theatre Royal, Haymarket, but advance ticket sales are reported to be nearing the £2m mark.

The play charts the meeting of two women who once shared the same man.  Madeleine Palmer, played by Dame Maggie, is a retired curator who lives alone on the Isle of Wight. The popular novelist Angela Beale, played by Dame Judi, who she has previously only met once before, comes to visit her. In one night they learn more about the hidden course of each of their lives.

Dual appearances

The professional paths of the 67-year-old stars have rarely crossed before.  They have appeared together in two films - Merchant Ivory's A Room with a View as well as Franco Zeffirelli's Tea With Mussolini.    

Dame Dame Maggie takes second billing to Dame Judi for this play - but simply by virtue of the alphabetical order of their names.  But Dame Judi is reportedly upstairs in dressing room No 2, while Dame Maggie Smith is downstairs in No 1.  Mr Fox told The Observer newspaper: 'It's all been very amicable," says Fox  "On musicals it's much more of a nightmare."  

The Breath of Life directed by Howard Davies and designed by William Dudley runs until 21 December.




London Stage Features Many Actresses

Thu Oct 10, 2:06 PM ET

By MATT WOLF, Associated Press Writer

Excerpt ...

Meanwhile, Smith and Dench are paired in "The Breath of Life." It is their first play together since 1959. David Hare's two-character drama, directed by Howard Davies, opens Oct. 15 at the Theater Royal, Haymarket.

It has been 43 years since Dench and Smith last trod the boards together at the Old Vic in Shakespeare's "As You Like It" and Congreve's "The Double Dealer."

Since then, of course, they have both won Oscars  (Smith has two) and a Broadway Tony and have risen to the pinnacle of their profession. That explains an advance sale for "The Breath of Life" said to be nearing an astonishing $3 million.

The play is already a commercial hit, but will it be an artistic one? It remains to be seen, with Dench announcing before previews that Hare's play was "the most difficult thing" she had ever done because, she laughed, the focus never shifts away from herself or Smith.

"It's very alarming," said Dench. "I long for a great tall man to come in from the back with a great long speech, and then (Maggie and I) can sit down."




October 7, 2002
By:  Matt Wolf


It will likely be years, however, before any U.K. non-musical betters the advance box office for the Smith-Dench pairing in Howard Davies' production of David Hare's "The Breath of Life." Capitalized just short of $ 450,000, the play is said to be nearing a stratospheric opening-night advance in the region of $ 3 million. (Producer Robert Fox wouldn't confirm that figure, understandably loathe to inflame any less successful colleagues --- which is to say, for now, all of them.)

The sales have been achieved without a single print ad --- a West End first --- and with 20%-25% of the run pre-sold on the Internet before the Haymarket box office even opened.

What, then, can Fox possibly do for an encore? (The immediate answer --- next spring's $ 7.5 million Broadway revival of "Gypsy," directed by Sam Mendes and starring Bernadette Peters.) "If Judi and Maggie would stay in (Hare's play) for as long as 'Les Miz' has run," Fox told Variety Oct. 2, "then I could retire. But they won't, so I can't. I have to go on."




Thanks to Joan S. for scanning and sending this

Great dames think alike

By Matt Wolf, Evening Standard, October 3, 2002

There is only one thing that could possibly generate more excitement than having Maggie Smith or Judi Dench back on the London stage - and that is the prospect of seeing Britain's leading thespian dames performing together.

But that scenario, once thought unimaginable, becomes reality this week when the two most bankable stage actresses of their generation (both are aged 67) take the stage together at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in David Hare's new two-hander, The Breath Of Life. Even in a theatre season awash with talented women (Elaine Stritch, Glenn Close, Brenda Blethyn), the Judi-Maggie show is sure to stand apart.

There was a time when Smith singlehandedly ruled the West End, sweeping all before her in hit after hit, from Peter Shaffer's eccentric comedy Lettice And Lovage in 1989 (in a role she triumphantly reprised on Broadway the following year) through to Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest in 1993, Edward Albee's Three Tall Women in 1994 (for which she was awarded the Evening Standard Best Actress award), Alan Bennett's Talking Heads (1996) and, most recently, Bennett's The Lady In The Van (1999). While the box office performance of the same generation's boys (Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi, and Michael Gambon) was more erratic, Smith always sold out - as any producer would gladly tell you, her name was guaranteed box office.

Then, about five years ago, something happened - Smith's long-time friend Judi Dench caught up. Not that she needed any introduction to British theatre audiences, who had been admiring her over the decades in Shakespeare and Chekhov, to cite just a couple of her credits. But it was her role as a stern-faced Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, a small-scale film first intended for TV, that created an unlikely if bona fide British movie star.

Dench received an Oscar nomination for her performance in Mrs. Brown and went on to become something of an Academy Awards regular, reaping an astonishing four nominations in the past five years - including the one, of course, for her eight minutes as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare In Love, which brought Dench the statuette.

Not that Hollywood has forgotten Smith, who has found a valuable franchise in the Harry Potter movies to match that of Dench's deliciously deadpan M in the James Bond films. Already a two-time Oscar-winner (for The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969 and California Suite in 1978) Smith returned to the Academy Awards this year with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Gosford Park. As a result, she and Dench (nominated for Best Actress for Iris) could add Hollywood's annual orgy of self-satisfaction to a list of shared showbiz experiences that includes A Room With A View (1986) and Tea With Mussolini (1999).

In some ways, they might seem like chalk and cheese - the evertart Smith, her inimitable way with a one-liner the byproduct of early years spent doing revue alongside the late Kenneth Williams, set against Dench, an actress whose reluctance to grandstand has meant that she is never more extraordinary than when playing ordinary women. It's difficult to imagine Dench playing the extravagant Lettice Douffet, the spinster fantasist that brought Smith a Tony Award in 1990 - the same trophy Dench would win for a previous Hare play, Amy's View, nine years later.

On the other hand, perhaps the two aren't as far apart as they may at first seem. (Both, for instance, have played Lady Bracknell.) As Laura in the Eighties TV series A Fine Romance, Dench made so convincing an English everywoman that she ultimately gave up the popular show because, she once told me, 'people kept shouting out, "How's your garden?î' But that ability to be instantly identifiable hasn't kept Dench from playing Shakespearean queens (a definitive Cleopatra opposite Anthony Hopkins's Antony in 1987). Nor does Smith, her Countess Of Trentham in Gosford Park

And at this point in their lives, both draw their power from reserves of very real pain, having each lost a husband in recent years. Michael Williams died early in 2001, while Smith's second husband, writer Beverley Cross, died in 1998, three years after the death of her first husband, the actor Robert Stephens. Both have actor children - Finty Williams in the case of Dench (she appeared as a young Lady Bracknell - as played by her mother in this year's Importance Of Being Earnest) and Smith's sons are the respected Shakespearean actor Toby Stephens and Chris Larkin (who appeared with his mother in Tea With Mussolini - a film that was a real family affair as Dench's husband also played in it).

And so it seems entirely fitting that the two should return together to the British stage as equals. I say 'return', since they last shared a billing as part of the Old Vic ensemble in 1959. The point is that these actresses are simply unique. As long as they are on hand to 'enlarge, enlighten, enliven' as Smith's Lettice Douffet was wont to say, a West End forever searching for its own breath of life should find itself breathing very easily, indeed.








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