81-year-old cements position as an all-time stage great with best supporting actress award, as Denise Gough wins best actress.
She is one of Britain’s most loved and decorated actors, with a 60-year career that has seen her lauded as one of the finest Shakespeareans of her generation and most people’s favourite Bond boss.
On Sunday, her position as one of the all-time stage greats was cemented when she was awarded a record eighth Olivier award. The prize, given at a ceremony at London’s Royal Opera House, means the 81-year-old has won more than any other individual before her.
Dame Judi Dench won best supporting actress for her performance as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, starring alongside Kenneth Branagh in his company’s production at the Garrick Theatre. It adds to the awards she won in 1977 for her role in Macbeth, 1980 for Juno and the Paycock, 1983 for Pack of Lies, 1987 for Antony and Cleopatra, 1995 for A Little Night Music, 1996 for Absolute Hell, and the special award she received in 2004.
The 2016 Oliviers ceremony also brought significant success for Chichester Festival Theatre’s West End transfer of Gypsy, which won the most awards for a single production; and for the National Theatre, which came away with four prizes.
Among the actors to miss out were Nicole Kidman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adrian Lester and Mark Rylance, who had a possible film-television-theatre treble in his sights after his Oscar for Bridge of Spies and Bafta TV nomination for Wolf Hall.
Dench made her professional stage debut at the Old Vic in 1957 and her win on Sunday was not a huge surprise. Some critics were disappointed by Branagh’s take on The Winter’s Tale, in which he starred as Leontes and co-directed with Rob Ashford, but there was universal praise for his co-star.
Time Out called her the show’s “saving grace,” while the Times hailed her as the star of the show. “She alone appears to be natural, nuanced, sane, holding the stage whenever she’s on it.”
Asked how she felt about the award Dench said: “I’m rather overcome, actually … I didn’t expect it. I made a bet with my grandson and I’ve got to pay out now … we’ll go out to supper.”
Dench said she last acted in the Winter’s Tale in 1969 at Stratford, doubling as Hermione and Perdita, when Brenda Bruce played Paulina. “I didn’t take enough notice,” she recalled. Working with Branagh had been a joy, she said, although she remembered waiting in the wings for the final scene and realising she’d forgotten to put on her skirt under her long coat. “Ken Branagh laughed like nobody I’ve ever seen, he was no help to me at all.”
Dench also said she thought Tom Hiddleston would make a good Bond, although it was a “huge mantle” to take on.
The best actress award went to Denise Gough for her mesmerising performance as an alcohol- and drug-abusing actor who checks herself into rehab in People, Places and Things.
Duncan Macmillan’s play began at the National Theatre’s Dorfman before transferring to the Wyndham’s. There has been much praise for the play, but it is Gough’s performance that is most talked about, with critics using words such as “titanic” and “emotionally shattering” and, the in the case of the Observer’s Susannah Clapp, “career-changing”.
It has certainly been that, given that Gough had nearly given up on acting after a year of rejections before she landed the part. “Times were really tough,” she told the Sunday Times. “And I was thinking, I can’t afford to go on living like this. In my mid-20s, I was, like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do waitressing.’ But I found it too depressing.”
Gough won from a strong shortlist that also included Kidman, Gemma Arterton, Janet McTeer and Lia Williams. The play also won best sound design for Tom Gibbons.
Accepting her award, Gough questioned the all-white shortlist in her category when there were such amazing performances in the past year from Noma Dumezweni in Linda at the Royal Court, Marianne-Jean Baptiste at the National and Royal Court, and Sharon D.Clarke in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
“If you think it is hard being a white woman in the arts, being a non-white woman is even more difficult,” she said, adding: “When people are giving storming performances they need to be recognised … We need things to change. Kids coming up who want to be actors, they need to see themselves represented.”
Kenneth Cranham was named best actor for his powerful portrayal of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s in Florian Zeller’s The Father. The play, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, has had an interesting journey, beginning its UK life at Bath’s Ustinov Studio before transferring to the Tricycle in Kilburn and finally to the West End last year, earning a shower of five-star reviews along the way. It opened for a second West End run last month ahead of a national tour.
Cranham is a familiar face from TV and film, but has only now, aged 71, received his first major acting award. He won from a shortlist that also included Cumberbatch, Branagh, Lester and Rylance.
He said he was nominated for an Olivier 21 years ago when he was the “boy” up against Paul Scofield, Robert Stevens and Paul Eddington. “I’m now the old one. At last I’ve got the bloody thing! When you get your hair trimmed and get fitted with a nice suit you want to avoid the bridesmaid syndrome.”
The best actor in a supporting role went to Mark Gatiss for his performance in Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Turganev’s Three Days in the Country at the National.
In the musical sections, Gypsy was the stand-out winner. It won Imelda Staunton the best actress in a musical prize, as well as best musical revival, best lighting design and best supporting actress in a musical for Lara Pulver. Kinky Boots won best new musical, best costume design and best actor in a musical for Matt Henry as the drag diva Lola.
The hip-hop musical In the Heights at the King’s Cross Theatre also picked up an eye-catching three awards: choreography for Drew McOnie, best actor in a musical supporting role for David Bedella, and an outstanding achievement in music prize for the show as a whole.
It was a good night overall for the National Theatre and its director Rufus Norris, who has been in the job for just over a year. Its productions won four awards, including best revival for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, by August Wilson, which explores the politics of race through the prism of the blues.
Martin McDonagh’s comedy Hangman, which opened at the Royal Court, won best new play. It beat People, Places and Things, The Father and Farinelli and the King.
In the opera categories, the ENO and its chorus, which almost went on strike last month in a pay dispute, won the outstanding achievement award for three productions at the Coliseum: The Force of Destiny, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and The Queen of Spades.
The ENO’s head of music Martin Fitzpatrick, who accepted the award, said: “Obviously I very much hope it will give the orchestra and chorus a lift after a tough time. I think it will give them the confidence to remember what the important things are and that is the performances.”
The Royal Opera House’s Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci was named best new opera production.
Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works at the Royal Opera House won best new dance production, and the Italian prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri won the outstanding achievement award for her performances at the ROH.
Other awards included Robert Icke winning best director for Oresteia at the Almeida. The Phantom of the Opera won the audience award, Showstopper! The Improvised Musical won the entertainment and family award, and Nell Gwynn won best new comedy.
The ceremony at the Royal Opera House, hosted by Michael Ball, saw performances from Cyndi Lauper, Jack Savoretti and a finale with 15 Olivier winners in What I Did for Love from A Chorus Line.
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