Plays about the inner working of a theatre tend to go one of two ways, especially when the audience on press night in particular is overflowing with thespian royalty. Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, written but 2 years later, is perhaps the more famous of the genre but The Dresser, likely Ron Harwood’s most celebrated stage endeavour, is gamely stating its own case too with a recent television adaptation featuring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins.
We find ourselves in the backstage dressing room of ‘Sir’ (Ken Stott) in a provincial theatre during the Second World War. We’re in the presence of a Shakespearean touring company who, even as the air raid sirens sound, stand by the mantra ‘the show must go on’. Early on, there is a very real possibility that it might not, however, as Sir is quite clearly unwell – whether this is physical, or mental, or just the weariness of age, we are unsure – his uncontrollable sobbing and steely silence only broken by the promise of a full house audience. The show in question tonight is King Lear, some of which we see acted from the wings in the second half of the performance (following a beautifully rotating set) and there are some clear parallels throughout.
The supporting cast perform admirably but it really is the two leads that command the show. The relationship between Norman (Reece Shearsmith) and Sir never does run smooth and the chemistry between the two actors is palpable. It is clear that were it not for Norman, Sir would have stopped touring many years earlier, and were it not for Sir, well, Norman simply wouldn’t quite know what to do without him. It’s strained at times, yes, and uncomfortable at others, but both characters shine with such stubbornness and obstinacy that their pains are truly felt. In some ways they are caricatures, amalgamations of a lifetime of experience from writer Howard but with their unique traits and sense of humanity, both bring a sense of realism and integrity to their roles.
The play abounds with meta-theatrical references, cleverly intertwining the lives, lines and tropes of their Shakespearean characters with their daily routines. This combined with the parodic description and caricatures of the different roles taken within the theatre itself (the stoic stage manager, the ham acted devoted actor-manager, the presence of the leading lady) allows the play to become almost a poem on the value and grace of such an endeavour. Norman, in particular, shows a pitiably vulnerability as he silently makes his way through a bottle of whisky, that leads to a heart-breaking performance.
There is a real comic sadness imbued throughout the play as we sense the sacrifices and hardships that both Sir and Norman have had to bear – very real at once to themselves, but unlikely to be understood by the other. There are some lovely interludes musing on the longevity of the theatre, life as a rehearsal, the notion that actors by putting on costumes become more themselves (but in truth who is this at all) and the meta-theatrical notion of an actors immortality, living on in others’ memory of their own legacy. There are also some fine quips at and about critics – but perhaps the less on that matter the better (crippled, deficient and dead being three adjectives used…)
When the curtain falls, and we step back to view The Dresser as a study of human relationships, through the lens of the theatre, only one thing remains to ponder – in this play who is our Lear and who our Fool, and which the more important?
The Dresser at Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4BG until 14th January 2017. For more information and tickets please visit the website.