“This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen,” speaks the Fool in King Lear.
The action of The Dresser takes place over one night before, during, and after a performance of that venerated tragedy. It’s the Second World War in England. Air raid sirens announce the danger of Nazi bombardments. The British populace determine to keep calm and carry on…and that includes to carry on gathering in lovely, majestic old theaters to hear the timeless words of Mr. Shakespeare and to find in them a certain solace in the midst of violent upheaval, danger, destruction, and death.
Many elements of ordinary life are now rationed, due to the war effort, and that includes actors who are able-bodied and young. It is a bit of a rag-tag crew who make up the company touring the country in support of the venerable leading man who we come to know merely as “Sir.”
We also come to know, over the eventful night depicted, those closest to him: his leading lady and common-law wife; his no-nonsense and devoted Stage Manager; a few of the other players in the company — too old, physically unsuited, or the wrong sex for fighting; and, of course, the eponymous aide whose life revolves around his Sir — and the theatre.
I’ve seen versions of The Dresser a couple of times before, but it’s been awhile. This new television version was produced for The BBC and is available on our side of the pond beginning this week on the Starz cable network. It is adapted and directed by Richard Eyre (who ran London’s National Theatre for a decade during the last century) and stars a pair of our most illustrious and accomplished contemporary acting Knights, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen. And it is the most satisfying production I’ve seen of The Dresser.
The Dresser began life as a play, premiering in London in 1980 and moving to Broadway the following year. A successful film version came out in 1983. Its pair of plum parts has made it a familiar staple at theaters around the country since. Productions have been seen locally at Olney (the 80s), Folger (the 90s) and Everyman (2014).
Ronald Harwood wrote the play, and his creation, Sir, is loosely based on Sir Donald Wolfit, a British stage star of the old school who was renowned for playing Lear, in particular, and for touring the country during the war years, in particular.
Wolfit was more popular among audiences than among critics and colleagues. This wicked barb is attributed to Hermione Gingold: “Laurence Olivier is a tour-de-force; Donald Wolfit is forced to tour.”
He was well-known for an easily-bruised ego and for his frustration at not being held in the same high esteem as Olivier, Gielgud, and others.
(He also is said to have been the model for the Vincent Price character in the delightful 1973 horror film Theatre of Blood, in which a bitter Shakespearean actor takes deadly revenge on his critics.)
On the other side of the ledger, Peter O’Toole considered Wolfit an important mentor. (The most memorable roles from Wolfit’s relatively few films include those supporting O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and Beckett.) Harold Pinter, during his days as an actor, was a member of Wolfit’s company.
The Dresser’s Sir is not an exact portrait of Wolfit. During the war, Wolfit was in his prime and had not yet been knighted. Sir, during the war, is in his twilight years and already has his title.
But there are a lot of similarities between Wolfit and Sir. And, to further bolster the case that Sir is modeled on Wolfit, there is this little fact: playwright Harwood (also a successful screen-writer who won an Oscar for adapting The Pianist) was once actually employed as Wolfit’s dresser.
Wolfit’s reputation as a second-rate Sir notwithstanding, Harwood’s Sir is admired by many in the play, and one presumes that, on some important level, the play is a tribute to an actor that, pompous and plummy as he certainly could be, is also admired by Harwood. “Speak well of me,” Sir implores a beloved colleague, as he contemplates his legacy. With The Dresser, Harwood does.
I wasn’t crazy about the 1983 movie, which I saw when it first came out. Directed by Peter Yates (Breaking Away), it starred Albert Finney as Sir and Tom Courtenay (reprising his stage role) as Norman, the title character. Both were nominated for Oscars.
What I do remember loving about the film is the way it captured that special alchemy that can happen when an ailing actor steps on-stage — the way someone who five minutes earlier seemed entirely incapable of performing somehow, almost magically, pulls it together and pulls it off. It doesn’t happen always; we’ve all seen or heard of actors who can’t make it through the show and are pulled-out midway. But as, if not more, often, some surprising inner resource is accessed and the show goes on.
What I loved even more about this version is that the story of Sir, in a clearer and more compelling way, became an allegory representing the will of the country during the Blitz; and the Herculean effort to get through the night’s performance a metaphor for the character’s struggle at the prospect of deterioration and death.
It’s a story about aging and facing the end, and one of the many hallmarks of the aging process (others include your first gray hair and the first time a sitting President is younger than you) is when there is a remake of something whose original you saw in a movie theatre.
So let’s admit that it’s been over thirty years since I saw the film, and I can’t be entirely sure what I may have missed then as against what Eyre’s new adaptation has either uncovered or honed. I believe he has streamlined the text in a manner that has accentuated the play’s themes and its central relationships, and blunted its hokier and more sentimental aspects.
He certainly has cast the piece wonderfully and guided that cast to striking performances. In his leads, he has two different types of very accomplished performances.
Hopkins is extraordinary, giving a performance that ranks among his most memorable. Since his earliest films, Hopkins has had one of those incredible faces that suggest depth and emotional resonance, one that can sear itself into memory. From first sight, he fully inhabits Sir, convincingly capturing the turbulent moods. I was in the palm of his hand throughout. Every moment was true and full.
McKellen snuck up on me. At first, I found him fussy, busy, stagy, uneven. He didn’t seem to be inhabiting his role as completely as Hopkins was his. Little by little, though, moments would strike me as gorgeous, such as when he is uncertain what to do with his impulse to applaud Sir from back-stage during the curtain call.
Then I realized that this Norman didn’t seem as likable as Normans I’ve seen before. Through the adaptation and the performance, Eyre and McKellen were accentuating the aspects of Norman that are oblivious and self-involved (he chatters about himself in the ear of an actor about to make an entrance); petty and unsympathetic.
And then I realized that this approach had set up a more powerful conclusion to the character’s arc than I remember from previous portrayals.
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If there is something lost in Eyre’s adaptation, it may be some of the connecting tissue between scenes. There were a couple of times when the Sir we see didn’t seem to come out of a previous scene. I don’t remember that happening as much with Finney, which makes me think we’ve lost some important transitional material.
What is gained includes the clarity and impact of the secondary characters, who seem more vivid — and fewer.
I loved Edward Fox, who provides a connection to the original film. In it, Fox played Oxenby, the surly, uncooperative (and homophobic) actor with radical politics and disdain for traditional theatrical mores and structures. (Maybe Pinter informed that character!) Fox is one of those invaluable, reliable character actors with long careers. (His one, memorable star turn was as the assassin in The Day of the Jackal.)
Here Fox returns to the piece, this time as an older actor for whom the war has provided unexpected opportunity, and whose lack of ambition — and ego — stands in contrast to Sir during a lovely scene, delicately played by both Fox and Hopkins.
Promoted from the throng of Knights to the role of the Fool (the usual actor playing the part has been jailed for having sex while gay), Fox’s Geoffrey is a mostly silent but almost constant presence throughout. Eyre brilliantly employs his motley costume as a clever reminder of the themes of the play we are watching, as well as of the play they are performing.
The role of Madge, the Stage Manager, proud of being with Sir the longest and devoted beneath a crusty exterior, is played by Sarah Lancashire. That portrayal also gains poignancy by avoiding easy sentiment.
Emily Watson is Her Ladyship. Watson deftly balances Her Ladyship’s concern against her resentments, personal and professional. I loved the scene during which she speaks of what it’s like to be in his shadow, receiving reviews that call her too old or the best of a weak supporting cast.
Her Ladyship plays Cordelia. A recurring motif is the difficulty for an older man of lifting a woman, and that motif helps us into one of the play’s wonderful insights: how experience and age can inform and deepen one’s art at the same time as the physical and mental diminishment associated with aging can impede it.
The blight on the film is the sappy, manipulative, and intrusive musical score. Yuck.
Contemporary actors, who find essaying any one Shakespearean lead more than a handful, will be in awe of an old warhorse like Sir, who played Othello the night before this Lear, is slated for Richard III the following night, and (according to the tally on his make-up mirror) also has Shylock and Macbeth in his current rep. Gulp.
If you are an Anglophile, you will love the British customs (addressing one’s backstage colleagues as “Mr.”) and expressions (“Beginners!” is the call to curtain-up places).
If you love backstage stories — well, it is their constantly-related stories to which Sir and Norman cling throughout a difficult time, a difficult night, a difficult performance; stories which define their lives, and which give the film so much of its poignancy.
A life in the theatre…