Writer: Ronald Harwood
Director: Terry Johnson
“What play is it tonight?” queries Sir not long before curtain up. The question seems strange nowadays but not in Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play set in the days of 1940s touring repertoire. The Dresser is a detailed play about a bygone world of English theatre as well as acting as a love letter to the art form.
Weary actor-manager (only know as Sir) played by Matthew Kelly is either in the midst or has recently suffered a nervous breakdown. His company of Shakespeare players are performing King Lear this evening with him taking the title role – of course. The problem is that he has just discharged himself from hospital, veers wildly into uncontrollable sobbing and can’t remember which of the Bard’s work they are due to perform – never mind the opening lines! Set backstage at a provincial English theatre in war torn 1942 these circumstances don’t seem out of the ordinary for Sir and his dresser Norman (Julian Clary). Much more than simply the star’s dresser, Norman is the glue holding the entire company together as he coaxes the aging ham actor from dressing room to wings. He is confidante, PA, skivvy and psychotherapist rolled into one as he prepares a man deeply mentally unwell to play three hours of King Lear.
Ronald Harwood’s play was based on a time when he, himself, worked in this type of traditional repertory theatre for five years and was dresser to actor-manager Donald Wolfit. Harwood is explicit that the play is not autobiographical nor based on any particular actor but that it is set in that particular world and time. Repertory theatre and touring companies meant a different town every week, different plays each night, a company of actors ‘mucking in’ and trying to impress for better parts. Harwood’s play deals with the weariness of it all rather than any glamour or excitement. Everyone is weary – Sir, his wife Her Ladyship (Emma Amos) and Norman. The Dresser has a certain flavour of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to it – when will it all end so that they can be released?
Kelly is excellent in the role of the exhausted Sir – somehow about to perform his 227th Lear. Stumbling into the dressing room a wreck of a man with half an hour to go before curtain up he howls his way through his preparation. Kelly’s melancholic, slightly cartoonish face, expresses how excruciating it is to be going through the motions again. Cleverly, Harwood’s ironic decision for Sir to be playing the troubled Lear that evening is not lost and Kelly impressively dips into what Shakespeare would have called madness. His wife (Emma Amos) is equally weary as an actor in the company. Amos has a veneer of stoicism that we occasionally see slip. As Norman, Julian Clary has a complex role. It is a love-hate relationship with Sir that has endured decades. Norman can second guess Sir’s behaviour – one step ahead most of the time. Yet, he too desperately needs to leave the world that has trapped him as lackey and flunky. Clary has excellent delivery of the dry wit. However, there is a darker side to the character that isn’t quite explored – especially with the threat of the young assistant stage manager Irina (Natali Servat) with all her youth and exuberance. There is possibly more to be found in the complexity of a master/servant symbiosis touching on jealousy, homoeroticism, and the sub/dom power struggle.
Kelly, once again, proves what a fine actor he is in a piece that still stands the test of time. Under Terry Johnson’s direction, Harwood’s play is a nostalgic period piece in a world of exaggerated performance and ‘ham’ acting that was once ruled by the likes of Gielgud and Olivier. It documents the shift in post war English theatre and its death knell while never once stepping into the limelight.
Runs until 12th February 2022