There are few modern classic plays that I like as much as The Dresser (1980), Ronald Harwood’s magnificent love-hate letter to theatre itself. Even the BBC, not known now for any kind of interest in drama, filmed it last year for television. Richard Eyre’s stirring production, starring the in-form duo of Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen, has just received a well-earned Golden Globe nomination. It’s a real shame, then, that Sean Foley’s stage revival lacks a certain oomph and is too often tonally uncertain.
The brilliance of Harwood’s creation lies in its ambivalence. On the one hand, he’s full of admiration for Sir (Ken Stott), whose monstrously – magnificently – rampant ego powers everything. Sir is an old-style actor-manager, heroically but madly leading his fraying-at-the-seams company on an endless tatty tour of the provinces during the Second World War. On the night we spend with these hardworking theatricals, they’re trying to stage King Lear during an air raid.
Yet Harwood, who himself spent five years as dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit, is certainly not unaware of the cost of the self-involved Sir’s exertions and ambition on everyone around him, particularly his long-suffering wife Her Ladyship (Harriet Thorpe) and his loyal dresser Norman (Reece Shearsmith). Her Ladyship is well into her middle years and still doggedly playing Cordelia. Thorpe’s understated performance unfortunately lacks the emotional clout of Emily Watson’s turn in this part for Eyre.
What a fascinating creature Norman is, all swirling and frustrated need and desire papered over by an all-purpose show-must-go-on pragmatism and washed down by liberal sips from the half-bottle of brandy that he keeps concealed in his apron pocket. He and Sir are bound together in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship. Without Norman to cluck, cajole and compel, there is not a chance that Sir, mentally disintegrating in a manner that has striking echoes of Lear himself, would make it anywhere near a stage night after night. Shearsmith, increasingly accomplished, captures all this in a tone of camp faux-cheer. When betrayal eventually comes, it strikes both him and us with an almighty blow.
Stott gives a rollicking performance, too, taking us skilfully around the emotional rollercoaster that is the Sir Show, with its weeping lows and full-house highs. Behind all this there’s an unostentatious celebration of the quiet endurance of British theatre. Harwood doesn’t spell it out in so many words, but it’s salutary to remember that attendances for all the art forms all around the United Kingdom hit startling record highs in the war years, and it’s the doggedness of Sir and his ilk that made this happen. I would have liked Michael Taylor’s design to convey a little more specificity in its wartime detailing.
With such promising ingredients at his disposal, it’s disappointing that Foley’s end product is lacking. ?Why are they bothering to put this on now?" asked the frustrated friend I took. She had never seen The Dresser before, and Foley doesn’t give a clear enough answer.