The Dresser by Ronald Harwood. Richmond Theatre review by John O’Brien
“The Dresser” by Ronald Harwood is a very well written tragi-comedy. I was really engrossed by it and found it intriguing, entertaining and ultimately very moving. Part Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and part Micheal Frayn’s “Noises Off,” it lifts the lid off the world of the tyrannical actor-manager touring company in its heyday in the 1940s. The story is compelling, the dialogue by turns witty and biting, the acting from the two central characters – Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly – is superb, the supporting cast excellent and the set, lighting, costumes and sound effects all come together to vividly recreate a minor classic.
Ronald Harwood like so many genius Jewish emigres to England anglicised his name from Horwitz, on the advice of a teacher because it sounded “too foreign and Jewish” for an actor. Most famous for his screenplay “The Pianist,” Harwood was for five years the personal dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit, the actor manager with his own Shakespearean touring company. It is this experience that provides the raw material for The Dresser. Harwood’s great insight in this play is to show both the nobility and nastiness in the theatre as ultimately inseparable.
The Dresser is Norman – Julian Clary – who for sixteen years has waited hand and foot on the superstar actor-manager, addressed as “Sir” (Matthew Kelly) by all in the company. This relationship is the heart of the play. “Sir” is an egomaniac and a bully, but at that same time dedicated to Shakespeare and keeping the tradition of bringing culture to the provinces and the frequent references to Colwyn Bay get the biggest laughs of the night. So a complicated man. Norman is devoted to him and craves recognition. But ultimately this is an unrequited love.
The action of the play takes place in Sir’s dressing room. Sir is ill but Norman is sure that he can get him dressed to go on, in under an hour’s time, to play Lear for the 227th time. The nuances of the interplay between Norman and Sir give the play its heft and heart. Sir rants and raves but unruffled Norman soothes his ego with exquisite one liners and much use of his hip flask. Time and again Norman deflects Sir’s outbursts with a nonchalant flick of his hair or raised eyebrow. Norman displays the patience of a saint. Sir refuses to go on because he can’t remember his lines, when Norman gives him the line he reacts furiously yelling “how dare you tell me my job”. Norman can’t win. But he can’t leave either. He is besotted with Sir, Shakespeare and the theatre.
The exploitative nature of the touring company is everywhere apparent. Irene (Natali Servat), a young woman is subjected to the casting couch on Sir’s chaise-long in his dressing room. But there is no solidarity from Norman. The ruthless pecking order in the theatre with everyone looking down archly on those just below with disdain is chillingly demonstrated. He threatens to mark her for life if she makes a fuss. Mr Oxenby (Samuel Holmes) a young actor has given his script for Sir to read but it lies unread in his dressing room draw. Madge (Rebecca Charles) the stage manager, like Norman in love with Sir, goes unrecognised for twenty years but stays loyal. Sir’s long suffering wife “Her Ladyship” – Emma Amos – sees clearly through his delusions but still adores him in spite of all. Why is this? It’s because they all want to belong to something noble and transcendent. Despite his flaws Sir gives them via his productions of King Lear, Othello, Macbeth and Richard lll access to a tradition of great art which gives meaning to their lives. In the true sense of the term they suffer for their art.
Ultimately then “The Dresser” is a truly profound play exploring why we need the arts and the great lengths we will go to in order to have it in our lives.