by Ronald Harwood
On The Chessboard
The King is in his counting house in Ronald Harewood's 1980 play The Dresser, but his health is failing and mental faculties faltering. Yet he remains literally a man of many roles, running a Shakespearean repertory company during World War II bombing and taking on Shakespeare's King Lear, Richard III and, yes, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in alternate performances.
Played here by Ken Stott, "Sir" the actor/manager inherits the legacy of actors like Edmund Kean in more ways than one. He maintains a precarious hierarchy, in a manner part galley slave gangmaster, part headmaster, touring the British Isles.
All the while, he's kept on his feet, chivvied, bolstered by and nannied on to the boards by his dresser for 16 years, superstitious yet expedient Norman (Reece Shearsmith).
A comedy, a tragedy and - in the case of Norman - a touch of music hall variety, The Dresser hearks back to a repertory system age when theatre became part of, and was in part bailed out, by the national war effort. But here the countdown to the production of King Lear, instead of an ordered chessboard, is as out of sync as the Lear mad scene, mired, we are subtly reminded, in the dangerous politics of the time.
At its centre Stott captivates and repels with his fruity tones and timing as the collapsing, mercurial, selfish Sir.
Sir who is dependent on the lure of the footlights to impress and bring fresh meat to the company yet still determined, however haphazardly, to keep what he sees as "the faith".
The only male actors available are those not called up - too old or invalided out. Like bespectacled Geoffrey (Simon Rouse), with the air of a civil servant rather than a thespian, unexpectedly elevated to the role of Fool. Or a saturnine Oxenby (Adam Jackson-Smith) who could possibly be a communist or maybe something else, at any rate out for "a new world order", especially if it involves a play he has written.
While "Sir" is "sir" to his company, it is his apparent consort who is truly "Her Ladyship" (a Wagneresque Harriet Thorpe), the daughter of a Baronet, although perhaps first brought in like another minor artistocrat's daughter who is mentioned and whose mother invested money in the company.
Also part of the aging thespian's retinue is the efficient stage manager spinster, Madge (Selina Cadell), whom we learn was dazzled at the start of her career by the footlights and "Sir" but has now having given up all hope of that first passion for him being reciprocated,
Directed by Sean Foley, The Dresser takes place on a handsome, detailed set designed by Michael Taylor. A crossways' dressing room with corridor at the side occupies the first act and a revolving set revealing backstage, the wings and finally full frontal performance in the second, with neat musical transitions by Ben and Max Ringham and lighting from James Farncombe.
Inspired by Ronald Harwood's time as a dresser for Donald Wolfit, there's plenty of kingly pomp, as much as farcical missed entrances, in the play within the play. As well as
visceral insight when the lives of the protagonists and the
Shakespearean drama superimpose on each other. Yet this is no sentimental trip down memory lane.
Despite the comedy, The Dresser is a sad, bitter play focussing on a theatrical world which subsists as a perpetually under-funded hierarchy of coercion and exploitation.
With its sporadic, if gentle, hints that performance also underpins violent debt-fuelled politics, it's a green light for this strange, double-edged dissection of a touring company at war.