The Dresser by Ronald Harwood
**** (4 stars)
The plot is pretty simple. It’s 1941, the middle of the Blitz, and actor-manager and grand old-school thespian ‘Sir’ should be preparing to go on stage as King Lear – but he’s not in the theatre and the rest of the cast and crew are panicking. Norman, Sir’s dresser, explains to ‘Her Ladyship’ (we assume, possibly incorrectly, that she’s Sir’s wife) how Sir has ended up in hospital. Her Ladyship and Madge, the stage manager, want to cancel the performance, but Norman is emphatic that this must not happen – and true to form, Sir stumbles in to his dressing room, determined that the show must go on.
It becomes very clear why everyone is so worried about Sir: he’s old, immeasurably weary, and terrified of forgetting his lines – always assuming he can remember which play he’s doing tonight. Norman alternately coaxes, bullies and encourages Sir and in return is treated with a lack of humanity that is at times appalling. It’s a wonderful picture of the egocentric arrogance that’s an integral part of the character of many great actors, and which playwright Ronald Harwood had five years to observe during his stint as dresser to actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit (there is a piece by Harwood in which he emphasises that the play is not a recreation of reality – but doth the lady protest too much?). It’s also an illustration of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ – an air raid begins just before the curtain is due to rise: Sir refuses to consider stopping the play, and the audience are invited to stay…
It’s fascinating to observe Sir’s transformation from shambling incompetent to magnificent Shakespearean Actor, even while he’s still failing to remember his opening line and terrified of going on stage. The dressing room set flies up to reveal the off-stage area from which we can hear the actors ‘on stage’ declaiming their lines (and improvising wildly as King Lear fails to make his first entrance on time). What’s even more fascinating for me is to observe the dresser’s role in enabling this transformation, and the total lack of thanks and appreciation he’s given. The other actors’ egos and machinations are also on display backstage, in stark contrast to the united front presented to the house.
The play ends, to rapturous applause, the curtain falls, and Sir comes through it to thank the audience and remind them both of the programme for the rest of that week and next week’s venue: but even here, Norman is behind him, prompting – truly one begins to wonder would Sir be able to do a thing without him? And there’s a twist – but I’m not going to reveal it!
I have to confess, I wanted to see The Dresser because Julian Clary was playing the title role – so imagine my disappointment when the announcement was made just before curtain up that the part of Norman would be played by Samuel Holmes: no explanation was given, and from the cast applause at the final curtain one can only assume that this was a sudden change of plan…
In the event, Samuel Holmes gave an excellent if understated performance – no camp posturings, but plenty enough queenish vitriol, together with an admirable self-control (admittedly, helped along by the odd wee nip or huge gulp from a half-bottle in his pocket) and an ability swiftly to backtrack if he realised he’d offended Sir. Matthew Kelly’s Sir was a rage-inducing but totally credible mixture of small child and self-absorbed tyrant whom I found impossible to like or sympathise with, even while his fellow-actors seemed to forgive him every outrageous remark and action, bonding together like one huge happy family – I guess you have to be a true thespian to understand and put up with that sort of behaviour! My only slight criticism of the pairing is that Samuel Holmes appeared to me way too young to have been Sir’s dresser for the past sixteen years – but that’s a small thing. Sir’s ego was such that Norman’s had to give way – ostensibly, that is: Norman was extraordinarily adept at subtly manipulating Sir, and the rest of the company – never for his own gain, but in the service of the art that was Sir’s acting.
The Dresser was well acted, and well staged, and a fascinating glimpse into a theatrical way of life that is now (mostly) a part of theatre history. The audience certainly appreciated the performance, laughing more and more as the show progressed, and at the end being joined by the rest of the cast in applauding the heroic efforts of Samuel Holmes and Matthew Kelly.
I felt slightly distanced from the performance, but largely because there wasn’t anyone among the cast with whom I could empathise. Norman certainly deserved our sympathy, but he never allowed us fully to realise this, always deflecting attention back to Sir – which I guess is the proper function of a dresser…
The Dresser, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Runs until Saturday 19th February. For tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/the-dresser