Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Dresser

Watford Palace
9 September 2008

The show must go on

I love backstage plays and plays within plays. From Kiss Me Kate and Noises Off to the more metadramatic Rosencrantz and Guildernstern and Travesties of Tom Stoppard, I enjoy the analysis of actors and their craft both with and without an audience and discissions about whether therefore, we are all acting in some way and as such are all audiences to someone.

Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser is a totally absorbing look at a slice of backstage life in a provincial World War II theatre as an actor/manager strives to take theatre the length and breadth of war torn Britain.

It focuses on an egocentric actor/manager known as Sir, although he clearly hasn’t been given a Knighthood as he constantly rails against those who have, and it looks at the relationships between him and his wife, the rest of the company and most importantly with his devoted dresser Norman.

As the play opens, Sir has been taken to hospital after apparently suffering some kind of breakdown. His wife, who is also the leading lady, and the stage manager Madge want to cancel that night’s performance of King Lear but Sir turns up having discharged himself and in a state of near collapse. The two women are even more determined to cancel but Norman is equally as determined that Sir should go on and we watch what happens as Norman persuades, cajoles and bullies his charge into making up, getting his costume on and making his way to the stage.

As Sir, Clive Francis brings the arrogant, infuriating and yet still likeable character alive in all its complexity. He mostly seems to be in a state of utter despair, driven by unknown forces and wallowing in it too. He can’t even remember his first line in Lear until the mere mention of a full house by Norman brings him to life. The whole play is based on Harwood’s own experiences as dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit and it does seem to be a classic portrayal of the acting profession, someone riddled with “issues” and uncertainty and needing an audience to truly exist.

Graham Turner is superb as a camp Norman who plays a submissive and protective role when dealing with Sir, although is clearly still in control. Then when coming between his boss and the rest of the company he turns spiteful and defensive. It’s clear that just as Sir needs an audience, Norman needs Sir to give meaning to his life and at the mere suggestion of this not continuing, his insecurities flow out in a bitchy tirade. I found it to be a very moving performance.

Sarah Burger, who plays his wife in the eyes of all but the law, gets the frustration of an ageing leading lady still playing Cordelia exactly right while the unrequited love of Stage Manager Madge for her boss is palpable - but this is really Sir and Norman’s play and it is their central bond that is most absorbing. Cleverly, Harwood mirrors elements of the association between Lear and The Fool in this relationship too which makes this an ultimate play within a play.

Director Di Trevis manages the balance between comedy and pathos and I liked the way that Ashley Martin-Davis’ set showed us what was happening in the wings while we could also see the action on the stage where Lear was taking place, although the scene changes between the two were a little clumsy.

But this is nit-picking in what is a good and thoughtful night out at the theatre.

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