Writer: Ronald Harwood
Director: Sean Foley
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
It’s 1941. Smoke and dust are rising from bomb craters outside the theatre, and another air raid is underway. Civilisation may be “under threat from the forces of darkness” but what matters right now is the absence of Sir. Norman, his dresser, is all aflutter. Under the circumstances (the lead actor in hospital, the Luftwaffe overhead), cancelling the show is a not unreasonable proposition, and yet Norman will not have it. Whatever is driving him, with an hour to go, we’re soon on the edge of our seats. Will Lear appear? Will he make it on stage? Will he remember his lines? Reece Shearsmith exudes limitless nervous energy as Norman, camp gestures entirely in character, his dedication to the theatrical cause bordering on derangement.
Just how deranged becomes apparent as Sir staggers in, his three-piece pinstripe suit dishevelled, already wrecked as if anticipating his character’s decline. When he speaks, however, we know we’re in with a chance. Ken Stott endows Sir with a voice that could strike the gods dumb, that makes us want to hear him perform, each line “a shield against barbarity.” Then, our hearts sink as he slumps in the makeup chair, weeping like a baby. He has to be reminded what play he’s doing (it’s Thursday, so it must be Lear) and of his first speech. Absurd as it seems, the terror of drying up is greater than the fear of being blown to smithereens.
Norman has to use all his powers of persuasion, finally hitting on the one fact that makes Sir sit up: “Really? A full house?” The comic line captures two essential qualities. We smile at his ego (they’re here to see him) and then reflect on his selflessness (he’s here to entertain them). When the tympani are drowned out by the sounds of explosions, when everyone in the wings is diving for cover, he rises, magisterially, oblivious to the danger (he still complains the storm’s not loud enough).
Sir is thought an “outmoded tyrant” by some in the company, and in his director’s note Sean Foley describes him as a “monstrously self-absorbed ‘ham’ actor-manager from a theatrical tradition now several generations past.” The glimpses we get of the evening’s performance support that interpretation, apart from Sir himself. He is the one actor out of the whole company who could survive on the modern stage. Perhaps Stott can’t help himself, but his “Howl, howl, howl” is anything but ham, and all the more impressive coming out of nowhere. We’re left wanting more of Stott’s Lear.
Traditions we are happy to consign to history include blacking up (at one point Sir thinks he’s playing Othello), groping (an actress from Maidenhead bends over à la Benny Hill), non-PC language (the “pansy fraternity” that runs the theatre), and bells on the Fool’s costume. In his programme note, however, Ronald Harwood rightly reminds us of the debt we owe to Shakespearean actor-managers like Sir, who “kept alive a classical repertoire which is the envy of the world.”
For all Sir’s magnificence, this is Norman’s story. The past tense of his never-ending stream of anecdotes beginning “I had a friend…” is poignant. He’s a lonely figure, in the end, bereft of the one man who gave his life meaning. His tragedy is that he’s in part responsible, like the tugboat towing the Fighting Temeraireto the breaker’s yard after one final battle. But what a battle.
Booking until 14 January 2017 | Image: Hugo Glendinning