Ronald Harwood’s play about an ageing Shakespearean actor and his ragtag itinerant company, performing undeterred by the Blitz, is a bit of a classic. Theatre was already substantially changed by the time The Dresser premiered in 1980 and has changed further since, making questions about why this play should be revived now somewhat inevitable. This production goes some way to answering them – without entirely succeeding – but it’s the two excellent performances at its centre that really make it worth seeing.
Ken Stott is so bombastic as third-rate actor manager ‘Sir’ that he could easily overshadow a lesser co-star – he is like a huge, sad, ruddy-faced bear that the stage can barely contain – but Reece Shearsmith is more than a match as his fussy, devoted keeper Norman (the eponymous dresser) and in the play’s most interesting sequences the two share the stage uninterrupted. If The Dresser had been written now, in poorer times, it would almost certainly be a two-hander, and if done as such it wouldn’t lack for much, despite strong performances from the supporting cast.
Sir is demanding and rude. He’s a monster backstage and a genius on it, and the waspish, slightly faded Norman sees it as a best fit for his talents to serve another, better than himself. Norman does everything for Sir, and in many ways their relationship is like an idealised marriage of the period. Norman the deferential, caring wife serves out of love rather than for money – except also for money, you realise increasingly, as Harwood unpacks their relationship and its codependence forged by the need of one to live and the need of the other to live with an audience.
Emotional marriages aside, the play remains firmly inside the class system. Norman destroys the young northern girl who has come up through rep and hopes to share some of Sir’s limelight. It’s a scene that is squirmingly difficult to watch, and not always quite in the right way. Norman’s place in the system, with all its inequalities, makes sense to him only if he is able to keep everything exactly as it is – nobody goes up or comes down – and for all Stott’s magnetic sound and fury, Shearsmith’s performance gives The Dresser its best moments.
When the play was written it presumably felt like a story about both an industry and an archetype. Marauding across the country with a not-so-merry band of actors, a fanatical devotion to Shakespeare and a steely, ruthless, self-interested core, Sir is both a stock figure and absolutely believable. Through him, Harwood makes plain how talent can be nearly obliterated by ego, childishness and greed, and yet still somehow shine through despite all that.
We think about men like this differently now. Men who think their talent means they can misbehave; men who think their notoriety entitles them to whatever they like. We’ve woken up from the dream of them. As Louis Theroux’s chilling Jimmy Savile documentary showed (coincidentally airing the same month as Jack Thorne’s excellent TV drama National Treasure), we have become a nation used to being disappointed by powerful men.
Something in Norman’s expression of distaste as Sir touches up a young girl in their company speaks to this – speaks to the lost look in the eyes of Savile’s PA, her loyalty, her willing blindness. But Foley, who has drawn out the knockabout comedy perhaps too successfully, keeps the audience laughing even as fairly horrible, under-examined things go on. Harwood ultimately asks us to sympathise and understand, and to see it as Sir’s tragedy that the people who seem to love him merely need him. And that’s a perspective which is hard to give a shit about, to be honest.
This tussle between text, director and audience, between comedy and relevance, doesn’t stop The Dresser being fun, but it makes it a frustrating evening. In spite of the script’s obvious brilliance it’s a relief when everyone stops talking. The Dresser breathes best in its silences here, finding something like an emotional heart as Shearsmith’s Norman simply exists beside Stott’s Sir. Whether swirling leaves in a pot or fighting desperately to get him on stage, he looks at Sir with abject, miserable devotion – and with something like love.
The Dresser is on until 14th January 2017 at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Click here for more details.