Everyone loves a bit of backstage drama and the West End has frequently welcomed successful runs of a number of ‘behind-the-scenes’ comedies – in the last few years alone there have been versions of Noises Off, The Play That Goes Wrong franchise and Harlequinade. But while these shows mock the silliness of actors and play-up the slapstick humour of putting on a play, there is also a darker more tragic side to an endless life on the road, to actors forcing themselves to play the same role night after night, and the difficulties of company hierarchy, which Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play The Dresser illuminates. In order to give an exemplary and memorable onstage performance do the very best actors need to suffer off-stage? And if they do, are there enough people to make sure they go on in time?
Currently playing at The Duke of York’s Theatre after a brief national tour, Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott take on the leading roles in Harwood’s much-loved tale. It’s an hour before a performance of King Lear and veteran actor “Sir” is missing while his dresser Norman paces anxiously around the tiny dressing room, covering for his famous master. After a beleaguered tour, the icy stage manager decides to cancel the show, but just in time Sir arrives, drunk and emotional. With 30 minutes till curtain up Norman not only has to get his star dressed but deal with his histrionics while reminding him what play he’s doing. Will Sir make it to the stage and even if he does can he get through the performance without giving himself away.
Harwood’s play is largely a two-hander and so much then rests on the chemistry between the leads. A recent acclaimed televised version united Ian McKellen (as Norman) with Anthony Hopkins (as Sir), and while reading any critical reviews of this latest version and you’ll see mention of the 1983 film with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney which many believed definitive. But nothing in theatre is ever really definitive, and this new version, directed by Sean Foley brings its own interpretation and flavour to the play, while evoking the freedom and defiance of the wartime generation.
In particular the dual relationship with celebrity is one that continues to fascinate us, embodied in The Dresser by the character of Norman who both loves the proximity to greatness that his job affords him, a role of which he is fiercely protective, while simultaneously loathing aspects of the man he has devoted his life to. What is interesting about Shearsmith’s performance is how effectively we see beneath Norman’s obsequious surface to the deeply ingrained bitterness below, yet he continues to value and covet the private access he has to Sir. There is considerable complexity here as Shearsmith presents a man who in a sense has sacrificed his own life and individualism to devoted service, but remains fully cognizant of his master’s flaws and resentful not just of others trying to come between them, but of the lack of gratitude from his employer.
One the most fascinating aspects of this play is seeing these undercurrents slowly emerge, and while the role of Norman is less outwardly showy than Sir, it is, in some ways, trickier to elucidate this bundle of repression, bile and, at times, personal despair. But Norman is far more than a pseudo-butler and Shearsmith plays-up his intelligence and shrewdness in keeping the angry theatre company at bay while he gets Sir stage-ready, as well as having an equally detailed knowledge of Shakespeare plays which comes in handy when frequently correcting his star’s mistakes. Although we clearly see that Norman is superior to his master, we also have to believe that he has invested enough in the relationship to have stayed for decades, and Shearsmith navigates that line very successfully.
By contrast, the role of Sir requires considerably more ebullience, and a kind of entitled indulgence for his behaviour. In Ken Stott’s performance, the audience sees a man who is entirely self-involved and, while incapacitated by drink and its consequences for much of the early part of the play, has little regard for those relying on him to pull it together and put on a show. His emotions seem to teeter on the brink of anger and complete collapse which Stott makes both fascinating and almost sympathetic. In Stott’s take on the character we see Sir continually battling his physical incapacity – brought about by age, drink and exhaustion –becoming a metaphorical tug-of-war between his mind and his body.
Here too we see that the effect of one day of over-imbibing reflects a lifetime of issues that culminate in this mini-breakdown, showing us the tougher side of an artistic life – endless nights on the road, random rooms and a series of failed relationships, alongside the pressure and expectation for a more successful actor that they will deliver a mind-blowing performance every night for the expectant paying audience. Stott’s Sir is certainly petulant and frustrating to manage, arrogant and domineering, but he’s also a man crippled by self-doubt about the rather transactional relationship others have with his artistic credibility.
And this challenge between artistic authenticity and making-do for commercial survival is at the heart of director Sean Foley’s revival, and as we see aspects of their King Lear from backstage, we see how frantically this company try to keep the show on the road with makeshift approaches that mirror their wartime era. These sections have much in common with Noises Off and Harlequinade as they descend into semi-farce, temporarily lifting the more serious tone of the dressing-room scenes, as anxiety over whether the shambling Sir will make it onto the stage after missing several cues and who will operate the thunder machine, becomes acute.
The wider cast is less well drawn by Harwood, giving us a surface engagement with a number of stereotypes including a fading actress, stoney-faced stage manager, novice actress and younger serious thesp, all of whom pop in and out of the action. Her Ladyship (a private joke with Sir) is given added meaning by Harriet Thorpe, emphasising the difficulty of being a lead actress beyond a certain age, who hasn’t achieved anything like the acclaim of her leading man. It’s clear she genuinely cares for him and the character is key to revealing the political factions backstage. There is a tender moment with Selina Cadell’s stage manager whose icy disapproval begins to make sense, but otherwise the creation of the secondary plots is as slapdash as their production of Lear.
The revolving set is used to marvellous effect in both the more intimate shabby dressing room and the expansive backstage scenes, moving seamlessly between them, and reiterating the collision of private and public life that this play considers. Meanwhile the sound design links the experience of a World War Two bombardment with the emotional collapse of this jaded company enduring one more attack from its volatile star player. With our ongoing fascinating with celebrity and their lives off-camera, The Dresser still feels pertinent to our times, especially with Shearsmith and Stott bringing new meaning to its fractious central relationship.
The Dresser is at The Duke of York’s Theatre until 14 January. Tickets start at £10 (although most are from £25) and are also available on Last Minute from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1