Dame Judi Dench is not an actor who takes bad reviews lying down – "you're an absolute shit," she wrote to one critic of her stage performance last year – but she found herself dumbstruck yesterday after being awarded the ultimate accolade: readers of the Stage newspaper have named her the greatest stage actor ever. Dench beat off dauntingly impressive competition, including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield and Ralph Richardson, to be named best of the best after a reader vote carried out over 10 weeks.
To be fair, live actors clearly had a distinct advantage over dead ones as the voters will have seen them on stage and this was reflected in Maggie Smith coming second, Mark Rylance third and Ian McKellen fourth. After that came Olivier, Scofield and Gielgud with Michael Gambon eighth and Vanessa Redgrave ninth. Richardson, who died in 1983, came tenth. Dench, who was last on stage playing Titania – as Elizabeth I – in Peter Hall's Rose Theatre production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, said: "I'm completely at a loss for words, but it's one hell of a thing to live up to."
The actor, 76 last Thursday, has long held "national treasure" status but she admitted in a Guardian interview last year that she was getting angrier as she got older. When the Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer wrote a stinging review of her performance in Madame de Sade in 2009, Dench wrote to him: "I've always rather admired you but now realise you're an absolute shit." Then, referring to a stage accident which made her miss some performances, she added: "I'm only sorry I didn't get a chance to kick you when I fell over – maybe next time …"
Alistair Smith, deputy editor of the Stage, said it was the first time it had run such a search in its 130-year history. He said it "celebrated the huge range of talent with which our stages have long been blessed". The ten actors were initially chosen by a panel of experts and Smith said: "The order of our readers' top ten quite closely reflected our experts' choices."
Dench, now firmly established in film as James Bond's boss, M, made her professional debut in 1957 with the Old Vic company in Liverpool playing Ophelia. She has won more Olivier awards – seven – than any other performer and her memorable roles have included a Juliet for Zeffirelli in 1960; the first London Sally Bowles in Cabaret in 1968; Lady Macbeth in Trevor Nunn's 1976 production; Cleopatra opposite Anthony Hopkins in 1987 and Desiree Armfeldt in Sondheim's A Little Night Music in 1995.