Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser evokes memories of a bygone age in British theatre and no setting more befits it than that glorious monument to thespian achievement, the Richmond Theatre.
The Dresser evokes memories of a bygone age in British theatre.
Having trained at RADA, Harwood joined Sir Donald Wolfit’s Shakespeare company and aged just nineteen became his personal dresser from 1953 to 1958. Wolfit was then fifty-one and had an established reputation as a classical actor, being particularly renowned for his performances as King Lear and Richard III, parts of the former being the play within this play. He came to recognition as Hamlet, however, and it was the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre’s refusal to sponsor a regional tour that led him to form his own company in 1937 and take to the road; a move that prompted Hermione Gingold to observe that "Olivier is a tour-de-force, and Wolfit is forced to tour”.
It was the last great period of actor-managers, who had dominated theatre for centuries but whose professional style would significantly wane after World War II. Matthew Kelly takes on the role of Sir, about to give his two hundred and twenty seventh performance of King Lear. The years, however, are taking their toll. He is increasingly uncertain about which play he is about to perform and of the opening lines. In a delightfully comic error he blacks up for Othello before being reminded that tonight is Lear. That scene is also a reminder of how times have changed in the theatre. His confusion resolved, Sir rails against the bombs dropping around the theatre on this night in 1942 in the same manner as he launches tirades against the storm and the annoyances of those who interrupt his preparation. Kelly delivers all the pathos, humor and eccentricity of a man who has known better times and now approaches the closing chapter in his exceptional life, yet is unwilling to give up.
Sustaining him and seeing him through it all is Norman, his faithful dresser. Julian Clary needs no introduction, but to see him on stage in a full-length, serious play reveals a side to him that is less well-known. His customary camp style is played down, but emerges from time to time in a number of asides, witticisms and mannerisms. He is comforting to Sir and yet can also be argumentative and petulant, but overall his mincing around the stage and delivery is rather monotone and low key.
Tim Shortall’s set cleverly transforms from the classic dressing room to the backstage wings from where the performers make their exits and entrances and all the paraphernalia of sound-effects equipment is set up. Enhanced by Ben Ormerod’s lighting, the two locations are effective and convincing.
Director Terry Johnson has done a valiant job with this endearing work, in which he is aided by some delightful performances from several actors. The play, however, rather like Sir, has probably had its day, outside of the nostalgia some might find in a piece of theatrical history.