Who needs Shakespeare when all the drama really happens backstage? Roger Harwood’s script may be slightly dated, but its found its place perfectly well as a period piece that celebrates and decries all the mayhem that happens behind the scenes of a theatre company.
Said to be based off of Harwood’s life as dresser to actor Sir Donald Wolfit, The Dresser is a backstage play, portraying the events of a single night in a theatre in the midst of war. Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith star as the lead actor-manager of a traveling Shakespeare company “Sir” and Norman, his long-suffering dresser respectively. On the night of a performance of King Lear amidst World War II, Sir has taken ill, launching into fits of madness and dementia, forgetting his lines and full of nerves as he gets dressed backstage. He is attended to by Norman, who attends to his duties despite never being recognized for it, and knows exactly how to get Sir ready, as long as he has a few shots of alcohol at the ready.
One cannot help but feel for Norman, who is akin to a knight (albeit a very sassy and wsiecracking knight) who defends Sir from all that threatens to end the show, most of which come from within the company itself, a metaphorical barrel of snakes. His wife Her Ladyship (Harriet Thorpe) has had it with being second class and never good enough, stage manager Madge’s (Selina Cadell) unrequited love for Sir has left her bitter, and various other actors who either despise the company or will try every means from flattery to flirting to get ahead. Yet, Norman does not get so much as an acknowledgement in Sir’s barely written memoirs.
But the show must go on, and Norman uses everything in his power to make sure it happens. The dialogue is fast-paced and a machine gun of wit, with most of the sharp quips coming from Norman making jibes at the various other characters. There’s plenty of drama mixed with comedy to keep the audience completely entertained throughout, from Sir’s inability to remember his lines and even character (not Othello, contrary to his makeup) and the play within the play itself: a marvelously problematic rendition of King Lear that milks the laughs from its failures, fully making use of the now all too common revolving set that shifts from backstage to mainstage fluidly, with characters walking through doors as the stage turns.
The Dresser is a tragicomic play that will spin your mood from joyous to sombre in the span of a few minutes. Although it can be difficult to follow the dialogue and jokes at times, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with Shakespeare, both Stott and Shearsmith do a remarkable job at playing their characters: the former embodying all the demanding sound and fury of Lear himself and the latter quick-thinking, slick and with all the air of the most capable dresser in the world. Sean Foley’s direction is tightly done and every word timed to comic/dramatic perfection. By the end of it, you won’t know whether to laugh or to cry, and immerse yourself in newfound appreciation for the dramatic arts and all the hell that goes on to make sure it all goes right.
The Dresser plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre (London) till 14 January 2017. Tickets available here