Ronald Harwood’s beautifully evocative play – originally premiered 25 years ago and now revived at the Duke of York’s - perfectly summons up the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. Or at any rate the smattering of entrance applause that greets the elderly star actor-manager when he finally takes to the stage of a provincial rep as part of a touring Shakespearean troupe in the middle of the Second World War. The disruptions of air raid warning sirens and dropping bombs are as nothing compared to the monumental effort that the dresser Norman makes to coax ‘Sir’ onto the stage as King Lear – or of Sir’s Herculean struggle to carry the body of his Cordelia (played by his Lady wife) in his arms with him.
This is a play of and about the theatre. It could equally be subtitled A Life in the Theatre if there wasn’t already a play on in London with that name by David Mamet. Harwood’s, however, is a full-blooded drama rather than a mere series of sketches. And, as now hauntingly revived by Peter Hall – a man who has also devoted his entire life to the theatre – it comes alive as a valentine to the rough magic of the stage.
That’s particularly thanks to the wonderfully inhabited performances of Julian Glover as Sir and Nicholas Lyndhurst as Norman, providing a superb example of the aching co-dependence. Glover is a substantial classical actor who has himself played King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2001, when one of my colleagues admired him thus: “His performance cannot be faulted for its sheer, unshowy humanity”. The same judgement could apply here, and it’s a pleasure to behold.
But Lyndhurst, a light comedy actor best known for TV’s Only Fools and Horses and The Two of Us, is a real revelation. Tall, rake-thin and with his greying, receding hair plastered to his head, he dissolves into the role utterly. It’s a chameleon-like performance, effortlessly unsentimental yet all the more moving for it.
There’s also a wonderful portrait in pinched disappointment and desolation from Liza Sadovy as Sir’s stage manager. For 20 years, she has been in love with him and, while she once lived in hope of more, has settled for what she could get – a life of proximity to him.
Theatregoers couldn’t do better than to settle for two and half hours’ proximity to this play and this production.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from November 2004 and an earlier tour stop for this production.
All theatre is illusion. Which is why the art - not to mention the craft - which creates it is so endlessly fascinating for us audience members. Ronald Harwood's 1980 play The Dresser epitomises this feeding frenzy.
We are in a provincial theatre during World War II, at the height of the bombing raids. Most able-bodied men - and quite a few women - have been drafted into military service. This leaves only the very young, the elderly and those disqualified for physical, sexual or political reasons to tread the boards.
This particular troupe is headed by an old-school actor-manager and his not-quite wife, both well past their prime. Harwood himself had been a member of Sir Donald Wolfit's company in the post-war years and has written a biography of the actor. Sir in this play strikes a considerable Wolfitian chord.
Peter Hall's production has the benefit of a fine set by Simon Higlett which manoeuvres us effortlessly between Sir's spartan dressing room, the bleakness of backstage corridors and the crimson-gilt world of the stage itself and the drop curtain shielding it from the actual audience - or perhaps even the audience from the stage.
Although Norman, the dresser, is the protagonist of this drama, Sir must carry equal weight. Julian Glover succeeds in doing this superbly with rotund vocal mannerisms and a physical presence that suggests decades of authoritarian dominance. Annabel Leventon as Her Ladyship matches him with a portrait of mingled irritation and acceptance.
For me, the trouble with Nicholas Lyndhurst’s Norman is that his words somehow take second place to his body. Of course, character traits are displayed by bearing and movement, but in a play with as many nuances as this one, it does help if you can actually hear what an actor is saying and so why other people on stage react in the way that they do.
The most junior member of Sir's company is Irene, appropriately played by Anna Lauren in her professional debut. Liza Sadovy is Madge, the over-burdened stage manager who has a greater grasp of practicalities than the actors around her.
Col Farrell has a neat cameo as Geoffrey Thornton, an ageing character actor who suddenly discovers a potential beyond simply ‘playing as cast’ but perhaps will never be given the chance to exploit it. Most theatre companies contain a political activist and Paul Ansdell provides a fleshed-out sketch of just such a nonconformist.
- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at Norwich Theatre Royal)