“The Dresser,” a poignant tale of theater personalities — the highs and the lows of touring and the relationship between a bombastic Actor/Manager (patterned after the fabled Donald Wolfit), and his dresser, Norman — is revived at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Starring roles are taken by Ken Stott (of tv Rebus fame) as “Sir” and Reece Shearsmith, as Norman his dresser, baby sitter, general dogsbody and psychologist.
The play written about the English regional theater during WWII examines the sometimes prickly relationship between “Sir,” and Norman, the lonely little man who anchors the “great actor,” ushers him through the torments of pre-performance jitters, his complex romantic life and the punishing regime of moving from one provincial venue to another in service of the Bard. “Sir” as played by Ken Stott, is a big man, capacious in body and personality. His needs, his pains, his sufferings are enormous. Norman as played by Reece Shearsmith is self contained, tightly strung, utterly devoted to getting the Great Man on stage, yet again, and indeed satisfying his enormous demands for attention. Ken Stott plays Sir as a monstrous Olivier manqué. What is he if not the carrier of the Grail, the very heart of the genius of Shakespeare to the masses? Norman feeds and soothes his ego. He believes in Sir, and thus Sir retains his belief in himself.
As the play opens Sir is a man on the edge of catastrophe. His physical strength is waning and his ability to rebound from performance to performance is being further undermined by the strains of wartime Britain. The sirens moan as bombs fall. The audiences are sometimes too frightened to venture out to these modest provincial theaters. Additionally Sir is caught in the middle of his own furnace of emotions. He has just been dismissed from hospital where he suffers from an unknown complaint. He is a jibbering nervous wreck. He can hardly remember who he is, or where he is. He doesn’t remember what play he is about to perform, nearly applying makeup for Othello until Norman tactfully reminds him he is playing Lear. It is a theatrical joy to watch Stott remembering who he must be that evening, and applying, under Norman’s instructions, the facial characteristics of the King. We the audience are suddenly privy to the effort, the transformation, the taking on the layers of a different personality, which is the substance of acting.
It falls upon Norman to prepare Sir for the evening’s rendition of Lear, which Sir reminds us is the most demanding and difficult of roles. Cordelia is played by Sir’s long term companion known as her Ladyship, whose unfrail body he must lift in his arms, in the last heart rending scene. She tears around his dressing room complaining of her unmarried situation, the endless touring and lack of stability in life. She is tired of dirty uncomfortable “digs,” and Sir’s philandering. There are some incredibly funny moments where he pantomimes the effort of lifting this Cordelia. The secondary male players, because of the absence of younger actors due to wartime service, are either elderly near retirement actors, or the physically disabled. All hands are called on deck to create the sound effects. Sir is hardly appreciative of their efforts and rails against the weakness of the rudimentary wind and storm effects; they are never loud or dramatic enough for Sir who is withering in his discontent with the second-rate crew who comprise the cast.
Throughout all of this we have Norman, nipping a bit from a flask and becoming increasingly tipsy, but never unaware of his tasks at hand. He fends off the young woman who attempts to seduce Sir. He brushes the costumes with devotion. He reminds Sir of his lines, stokes the ego of her Ladyship, whilst competing with her for Sir’s attention. He manages one more time to heave Sir onto the stage, enable his performance, remind him of the paying customers, literally willing him on. All bows are taken and then the “real” denouement occurs. We witness genuine heartbreak amongst all the trappings of theatrical illusion. These actors are real people, with real tragedies and Harwood reminds us of their humanity and ours.