Despite it's tragic-comic status, The Dresser is a chaotic and exciting play, much like the world of theatre it depicts. You may cry, but you'll have fun doing so.
The latest adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s ode to theatre has been brought to the London stage by director Sean Foley in the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, where its characters will insist they belong. It shines as an urgent tragicomedy, both outrageously funny and poignant.
The Dresser follows the final performance of a famed actor and manager of a travelling theatre troupe, known only as Sir (Ken Stott). He rants and panics his way through a powerful performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear, helped along by several members of his troupe; most notably, by his trusted dresser, Norman (Reece Shearsmith), who is the most anxious that ‘the show to go on’.
There is an incredible sense of urgency throughout the play, not only in the tragic, dramatic performance unfolding in front of you – but also in that the world of travelling troupes and the actor-manager is dying. This is shown especially through well through the staging of the play, which occurs in a Noises Off-real time style. The audience can see everything from the dressing room, to backstage, to onstage; they are not only an omnipotent voyeur, but feels the full interactive force of the play. We are transported to this age of theatre, and feel the exasperation, the suspense, and the urgency of the play as it unfolds.
Initially it was a concern that the play’s setting, the intense 1940s world of theatre, would alienate younger audience members (I won’t pretend I understood all the references thrown at me), but it was the true power of acting that made all elements of this tragicomedy felt. Reece Shearsmith, in particular, was phenomenal in his camp portrayal of Norman, who made audiences roar with laughter during the first act by doing something so simple as making a cup of tea for the uncooperative Sir. As the play progressed, Shearsmith showed his power as actor – his character becoming cruel and pathetic in his exasperation for his world to stay as it is. I am not embarrassed to say that by the end of the play, I was wiping tears away from my eyes from the emotion I could feel from Shearsmith’s performance.
Similarly, Ken Stott’s performance as the piggish and self-absorbed actor-manager, now suffering, is a powerful thing. He is performing Lear for the 227th time. It is on his head that this rapidly decaying world lies, and he both loves it and runs from the responsibility. Sir is an irritating character, abusive to all around him, yet demands sympathy and irreverence. Stott’s performance is fascinating to watch. It is unclear at times what is Lear (and the rest of his roles, in a humorous segment when they all blend into one), and what is Sir. Is he fragile, or too strong? Is he unworthy of sympathy? It is this chaos that makes the play exciting, as the audience, like the members of the crew, are unclear at all times where Sir will take us. Will he be able to perform, or will he explode with anger? The pressure is immeasurably fun.
All tears aside, The Dresser was an extremely fun play to experience. Sean Foley has created a beautifully staged and acted portrayal of the highs and lows in theatre that resonate.
The Dresser plays at Duke of York’s Theatre until 14th January. Tickets are available via the play’s website. The play’s run continues at Chichester Festival Theatre, from 25th January to 4th February. Find out more on their website.