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April 26, 2005

The Dresser - Ronald Harewood

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Ronald Harewood's The Dresser
Duke of York's Theatre, London
28th February - 14th May 2005

The Dresser might be described either as a love letter to the theatre, or a devastating criticism of the passions that constitute it. Ronald Harewood's play has had a great success since it first opened in 1980. It has been filmed, and played right across the world.

The two central characters might be taken as variations on the theme of the novel and film of The Servant. They are what psychiatrists used to call "co-dependent". "Sir", a character taken to be based on Sir Donald Wolfit, is a grand old repertory actor at the end of his tether, and Norman is the dresser who has been at his side for sixteen years. Repertory touring is being seriously undermined by Hitler's bombing campaign and Sir takes it personally. He complains mildly:

Herr Hitler has made it very difficult for Shakespearian theatrical companies.
We pretty much observe the unities of place time and action, and the events unroll around a performance of King Lear that almost does not take place because Sir is exhausted and having a nervous breakdown. He has behaved strangely out on the streets, and ended up at the local hospital, full of doctors with hypodermic needles. Norman can hardly forgive himself for letting Sir into their clutches.

The theme might almost be taken for an exercise in marine biology. Norman is a limpet attached to Sir's rock except that the rock is breaking up under him. Madge the stage manager recognises that the star is ill and she wants to cancel the performance, while Her Ladyship is desperate for the old ham to call it a day. She can't bear the thought of more chilly digs and late night cold suppers. And by contrast with Sir, Her Ladyship's Cordelia never gets much praise from the critics. Both Madge and Her Ladyship float around Sir in an attempt to keep him under control, and Norman struggles to keep their influence at bay, and his world in the only shape he understands. Her Ladyship is all sensible compassion the old man has just had too much and should be allowed to rest - but Norman knows what makes him tick. Basically, he is a humour animated by nothing else but footlights and spectators.

The Dresser is King Lear on stage and off. A world outside is crumbling as the bombs fall, but our concern is the desperate effort that goes into keeping this little world in being. Norman is always talking about "his friend" who nearly gave in to despair in a breakdown that had him gloomily facing the sea in Colwyn Bay, but from which he was recalled to life by the call of the theatre. The relationship between Norman and Sir is life-support and bondage for them both. Harwood's control of events and character is perfect, and there's not a dull moments in the play as we share the anxieties of the performance, including hilarious efforts behind the scenes to represent thunder and rain for Lear on the blasted heath. Lear comes out of that scene just as the sirens are sounding the all clear. He cries irritably:

Just when you need them, they let you down.

The Dresser has the resonance of a marvellously concentrated exploration of the illusions that constitute a profession. Everyone around Sir, except Norman, is clear that whether Shakespeare gets performed in a provincial town on a particular night in the middle of a war is a matter of small moment, but for Norman and Sir, it is the most important thing there is. Norman's ruthless control over his rock, in contrast to the conventional compassion of everybody else around him, is one of the many moral ideas explored. The supporting parts are good, and the two central performances nothing less than masterly.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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