Seeing a show on it’s last day is a bittersweet thing. However good or bad it may be, anyone you tell about it can do nothing with the information. Unlike a film, if you miss in the theatre, that’s it. You can never see that production with those people again. Which is part of the beauty of theatre over film- it’s immediacy and one-off nature. It’s irreplicable. Nevertheless, The Dresser is a show well worth talking about.
Part of the reason I ended up seeing this on it’s last day was that it’s description made it sound, to be frank, pretty boring. Set during WWII, an aging Shakespearean actor has doubts and needs his loyal Dresser to get him on stage? Not a great sell, even with Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott, two of my favourite actors, in it. When a play of mostly two characters has already set one up to be a theatrical bore, someone I doubt I will like, it doesn’t make me wan to rush out and see it. But swayed by the two leads, I belated decided to give it a shot. If you are ever in a position to see this, do so. It’s a hard sell from the premise alone, but it really is a gem.
The Dresser himself is, unsurprisingly, central to the play, and Shearsmith carries it off wonderfully. He is an insatiable gossip, a story-teller supreme and fiercely protective of ‘Sir’, his actor-boss. His is the loyalty of butler to master, dog to owner. He has been with Sir for 16 years, which he is very quick to point out is longer than Sir’s partner Her Ladyship. The trust placed in him by Sir is valued and jealously guarded, although there are flashes of hatred as well, for his treatment, his position and his dependency on Sir.
The show starts with Sir having had something of a breakdown, and while backstage supposedly getting ready to go on, he is weeping and wailing and refusing to prepare. It is The Dresser that has to step up to the plate and coax, cajole, persuade, flatter and order Sir into action. The role is King Lear, and there are plenty of parallels throughout the show, with The Dresser taking on the role of the Fool, chattering nonsense and stories that all begin “I had a friend once…” but imparting sage wisdom and keeping Sir on some kind of track.
This show has both wit and pathos, but it is an emotional beast at heart. Whether or not you like Sir, you can feel how torn apart he is, whether you admire The Dresser’s loyalty or despise his sycophancy , you react to his distress at potentially being separated from Sir. Supporting turns from Sir’s partner and his long-time (even longer than The Dresser, much to his chagrin) stage manager Madge bring more Lear parallels. Her Ladyship is playing Cordelia in the play within the play, but Madge is much more Sir’s real-life Cordelia, devoted but honest, refusing to flatter or attempt to please, and as result is held at arms length, punished for her genuine love of Sir.
Ken Stott puts in a solid performance as Sir, a man who in his emotional turmoil jumps from weeping in despair to barking instructions to terrified forgetfulness in moments, and Stott definitely has the stage presence to carry all of this off as well as being a believable Shakespearean stalwart. However, it really is The Dresser who has to carry the play to where it’s going, and if you’re considering seeing another production of this, make sure you have confidence in the actor cast in this role. A bad Dresser could easily reduce the whole play to farce and hyperbole, instead of a touching and funny portrait of a couple of old fools.