I was very intrigued to see this play featuring two of my favourite actors. Ken Stott is always the definitive Rebus and Reece Shearsmith is a powerhouse of dark comic technique as showcased by multiple acting and writing roles in The League Of Gentlemen. The chemistry and timing of both excel in this play conveying the end of an era. It was written by Ronald Harwood whose own experience as a dresser served as his inspiration. He conveys true affection to the portrayal of the wartime theatrical life: the camaraderie, the make do and mend ethic and the petty backstage bitchiness and quarrels. It is a homage to this but also a reflection on destruction and disintegration – not just of wartime bombing- but of the demise of the ‘old world’, of rep theatre and the old school, non-film theatre Luvvies like Sir who, once gone, will not be replaced but who are anxious to be remembered all the same.
The set is a cleverly revolving one revealing both the neglected wartime regional theatrical backstage rooms reeking of musty costumes and rationed booze – and also a slant eyed view onto the stage and wings. The action is almost all backstage where the frailty of Sir and the destruction of the age unfolds.
Stott as ‘Sir’ is a great ailing legendary thespian leading a third-rate rep company during the Second World War taking Shakespeare to the regions. He is distressed contemplating total emotional and physical collapse at the very prospect of, once again, having to play Lear (for the 227th time). As events unfold he too undergoes a Lear-like disintegration. He weeps about ‘them’ coming to get him: ‘they’ are never disclosed. Is it the constant Luftwaffe raids, the war weary audience or his theatrical forebears conspiring to drag him into the next world? We simply don’t know. All we do know is that he has physically collapsed in the street but will not stay in hospital or even begin to agree to an understudy taking his part. He refuses to listen to the doctors or his common-law wife and instead, under Norman’s (Shearsmith’s) cajoling, nagging, constant reassurance and ego bolstering, insists (despite constantly proclaiming ‘I have nothing left to give!’) that the show must go on. It is as if both their lives depend on it.
But he is ailing, falling apart and almost accepting a demise. In the second act as everyone ducks backstage in fear during the bombing: Sir as Lear does not stir. The bombing occurs around him as he stares bleakly into the abyss. The audience are erroneously told by a nervous Norman’ that during the raid those who want to ‘live’ (meaning ‘leave’) can go. It’s as if he means death is happening to theatre itself.
Norman flits about protecting Sir doing everything, and more, for him but ultimately, as Sir disintegrates, so does he with the boozy realisation that he can only survive and have purpose in the great Sir’s orbit. When he is genuinely dead, Norman laments ‘What will happen to me?!’ He, like Sir, has been plunged into the void. His old life now very much gone. In opposite to his expectations Sir’s final bow on the earthly stage of life comes not as a dramatic flourish but more of a silent non-event. We know as ‘The Dresser’ that it is Norman who is the star of the play and yet conversely and devastatingly, is ‘no-one’ as Sir doesn’t even mention his name in the notes to the initial draft of his autobiography. He really didn’t have ‘anything left to give’ it seems, not even to his dresser who gave everything.
Ken Stott is in full magnificence as the alternately bellowing and weeping ‘Sir’ – paranoid, needy, vain and boastful in equal but unstable parts. Propped up by the practical and emotional backbone that is his dresser Norman, played brilliantly by Reece Shearsmith. Exemplary performances.
It would be wrong not to mention the rest of the cast all of whom ably supported the two main stars. This includes Harriet Thorpe as Sir’s world-weary and fatalistic common-law wife (which is why he claims he never got the knighthood and recognition he so badly coveted) who wasted her youth and future to be with a man who could not fully commit to real life and real relationships. Not forgetting Selina Cadell who was wonderful as the stage manager whose sad realism and stoic loyalty is based on many, many years of undeserved unrequited love for Sir.
Harwood’s play is brilliantly powered by Shakespearean references. Sir’s decline is, like Lear’s, played out to the booming soundtrack of a great storm: the German bombing raids. Likewise it seems that The Dresser is but Lear’s own Fool: witty but ultimately sad and with a life that is about to disappear from the story itself.
Cast: Ken Stott, Reece Shearsmith, Selina Cadell, Harriet Thorpe Director: Sean Foley Writer: Ronald Harwood Theatre: Duke Of York’s Duration: 2 hrs 45 mins Dates: 5th October 2016 – 14th January 2016