The latest role of Reece Shearsmith (League of Gentlemen, Psychoville) has seen him take up the mantle of Norman in The Dresser at the Duke of York Theatre, London. The play, by Sir Ronald Harwood, follows a theatre dresser who battles an uncomprimising actor-manager, stage fright, and even a World War Two blackout, to ensure that the show goes on. The play is a particularly moving tragi-comedy, that displays incredible emotion and theatrical innovation. As the play moves to Chichester Festival Theatre, The Edge got the chance to talk to Reece about his new role.
What drew towards The Dresser as a play, and this role?
Well this play particularly interested me, and when I was offered the part of Norman I was surprised, because I had never really thought of myself as performing this part. But I knew the play very well because of the film version, and I was thrilled to be asked.
You recently moved the play from London to the Chichester Festival Theatre; what was it like to move?
Well we were touring a little before we got to London, so we had already had experience of the play in multiple venues. It was very different, the stage was different, a thrust stage, three sides. So, there was a lot to change in terms of the staging. It has been a challenge so that everyone can be seen, as opposed to when it was staged front-on. We have done a couple performances now, and everyone seems to be really enjoying it. It’s a very theatrical audience in Chichester, they’re very clever, they get the nuances – they understand the world that the play is in.
I really like the feeling that the audience is seeing is really just the backstage of another play – is that something that interest you?
It’s enjoyable – I think people are always very fascinated about what goes on behind the curtain, and the dynamics of it whether it’s a musical or a comedy – that side of it is very apparent, but I think people are also very interested in the play as a great story about relationships. It’s friendship and loyalty.
Your character has quite a large arc. You go from what seems like a comedic character to a truly tragic figure at the end. What is that like to perform such a range every night?
It is, it’s like every night I’m having a nervous breakdown. It’s taken its toll, which I’ve never really done, but you can’t do Norman half-hearted. You’ve got to give it 100%. He is intense with his emotional turmoil of a life just wasted. He drives the show completely – while Sir does dominate, it is Norman who is the man in the wings who waits there to pick up his clothes. It’s that mindspace that you have to get into. It’s a funny part, but it is a muscular part as well.
You have a comedy background [with The League of Gentlemen], so how was the switch to drama?
I have done straight drama before, and parts that were not funny, but it was lovely to play Norman. It’s a truthful part, and I tried to play the reality of the situation. I think if you play the truth in everything, it makes the stakes higher, and it matters more what happens to him. I do enjoy the comedy, though, it is an odd play because it isn’t out-and-out comedy or drama.
The play exists very much in real-time [I am thinking of a sequence in which Shearsmith makes a cup of tea, and attempts to engage Sir in a very one-sided conversation] – was that difficult?
A lot of rehearsal went into it, I had to make a lot of cups of tea to make that look realistic. On stage it is quite tricky, this dresser role is something I am actually doing – making the tea, and getting Sir in and out of his costume and makeup. All that has to happen seamlessly, the audience doesn’t notice it when it happens seamlessly, you would notice it if every time I dressed the costume got stuck, or the coathanger got caught. All those things don’t mean anything, but I’m really trying hard to make it fly by like it is nothing. I’ve got to make it look like it is the most ordinary, hum-drum thing in the world, and as if I’ve been doing it for 16 years. It took quite a bit of rehearsal to make it look like it was an easy thing to do, but I’m always really careful in those moments to make sure that nothing goes wrong, because I’m very precise – and I would hate to stumble and make the tea spill and undo all that smoothness. There isn’t any showing off, you shouldn’t notice it – it is no magic trick, I am actually doing it. It’s quite hard to make it look seamless, but that is one of the challenges of the part. It is great to make it look like it is all matter-of-fact, because it gives the illusion of a routine that is done without thought day after day.
This play is about the urgency of theatre – do you find that extends into modern theatre?
Not really, not in the same way – there isn’t the rigor. There isn’t a Sir (actor-manager) with this higher calling to present Shakespeare to the masses day after day. They battle everything to get their show out there, he has to, he cannot not do it. It is his life completely. I don’t think that unrest occurs today, or at least not in the same way, it’s the rigor – all the actors who have worked in that world have said how great it was, juggling four different plays in one season, going around and around doing all these types of shows. I don’t think I could do it, but it was just the way of the world then. I don’t think it does exist in quite the same way, the regional theatres are there, but not the relentless touring as there is in the play.
The play is very much about the idea that ‘the show must go on’, have you ever had close calls where it seemed like the play might not happen?
Very rarely, I think it is the worst thing is the world when you’re ill and you feel like you may have to cancel. Once, when I was doing The Producers, I sprained my calf muscle, and since there was a lot of dancing in that, I could not go on. It was absolutely devastating, so I understand Sir. In a play, that sort of injury or accident is much rarer. I’m always sure to go on. I’ve had nerves, I have nerves whenever it is the first performance, because it is completely unknown – it is like jumping off a cliff without a parachute. There’s always the madness of sitting in the wings, and sometimes you think, ‘why am I putting myself through this,’ but when you have done it once, in my mind, it’s always a lot easier, because you’ve can tell yourself, ‘You’ve done it once’.
The Dresser finishes its run at Chichester Festival Theatre tomorrow night (4th February). Tickets can be found via their website, where you can find information about the many other great shows coming up, including Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths. You can check out our original review here.