Every once in a while something made for television comes along that seems like art for art’s sake, a production meant less to be a hit or an event than simply a good idea matched with the willingness to do it and a place to show it.
Such is the case with The Dresser, the Starz-BBC co-production premiering Monday night on Starz (it aired on the BBC last year) based on Ronald Harwood’s famous play of the same name (which ran in the U.K. and on Broadway and also was made into an acclaimed 1983 film) starring Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins, Emily Watson and Sarah Lancashire in an acting tour-de-force that’s absolutely delightful.
Adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, who is basically filming a stage play while retaining (well, actually enhancing) the play’s function of giving the audience a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of traveling stage actors, The Dresser takes place during World War II and focuses on a regional Shakespeare theater troupe traveling the outskirts of England trying to keep the Bard’s work and their craft alive, all while air raid sirens signal a German bombing.
Harwood’s play is fittingly beautiful on a number of levels, but setting it during the war (and while the bombs fell) gives extra poignancy to one of the loftier elements within it — that these actors feel compelled to prove the show must go on and that the audience, too, feels a need to maintain a sense of normalcy amid crises and perhaps even a grander notion that tyranny can’t bomb the culture out of a people unwilling to lose it.
At its heart, The Dresser is less lofty — but more funny and bittersweet and telling — as it focuses on the lead actor and manager of the troupe, called Sir (Hopkins), and his loyal dresser, Norman (McKellen). It’s the first glimpse the audience gets of a series of complicated relationships, all revolving around Sir — which is just how he prefers it, as the ego-driven but talented center of it all. The Dresser is frequently cited by actors as one of the best-ever depictions of the acting class — why anyone would do it, what makes those who do tick and what the life is like. That Harwood managed to make it so much more than that by also examining the complications of love is just more gilding.
,” the actor said at TCA, when he also discussed the “insecurity” that drove him to leave his theater career behind.”]
It’s clear that Norman loves Sir; his loyalty and selflessness hiding it, though others no doubt see it. Watson plays Her Ladyship, Sir’s real-life love but also a woman whose loyalties are frayed. She fears (rightly) that Sir’s declining health and slide toward senility is exacerbated by the grueling hours of the traveling troupe and the demands of Shakespeare’s work (the troupe switches plays nightly).
The Dresser opens with Norman having found a clearly irrational Sir roaming the streets in the rain, reciting Shakespeare, unable to identify Normal at all, in spirited form undressing himself in public and, in fact, having a breakdown. We learn that Her Ladyship was there, too, witnessing the decline but pretending not to be present. With King Lear looming that night, Norman is keen to rustle Sir from the hospital so the show will go on, while Her Ladyship sees a chance to finally end the run — of the troupe, of her own acting career in Sir’s shadow (she suffers harsher reviews than he, billed as too old to play Cordelia and never matching the acclaim he gets); it’s also time, in her estimation, to end the meager life the two of them are making, forever traveling to new places.
A more practical response comes from Madge (Lancashire), the stage manager of the company, who keeps everything on time and functioning — a devotion to the life and to Sir that she cloaks with her unflinching practicality. If he’s not able to go, that night’s show must be canceled. Norman and Madge are in their own ways fighting for Sir’s affection, and her third of the entanglement unravels slower but with no less force as the wonderful Lancashire unclenches the face of unrequited love as the end nears.
While Watson and Lancashire add so much to Harwood’s deeper layers in The Dresser, there’s no escaping that Hopkins and McKellen are the central figures here, giving wonderfully nuanced performances, onscreen together for their first time in their acclaimed careers. Part of that is because of the intimate nature of the dresser and the lead actor, of Norman and Sir’s close relationship and the fact they are almost never apart. But there’s no escaping the enormity of what they bring to the roles as actors, and it’s such a pleasure to watch each scene.
But the emotional crush of The Dresser is achieved because Harwood’s words are so keen and touch on so many themes (again — the war scenario only enhances this). There’s Sir acknowledging his decline, both in age and mental acuity. Hopkins is wonderful at getting at the sorrow of that understanding — that Sir never made it to London, never had greater career success in his younger days, but also the rage of not being able to remember even the opening lines in a play he’s performed 226 times before.
There’s Norman, and also Geoffrey, (Edward Fox), another member of the troupe who, like Norman, was initially hired as “play-as-cast” actors — meaning they would play whatever they were told to play, but always lesser roles — both coming to terms with their lessened dreams. Everyone, however, chose to act, and even if they all didn’t end up like Sir or Her Ladyship, they were born for the stage (or at least never gave up the dream). That’s what Harwood targets in The Dresser and convincingly shows that to viewers who are non-actors — the passion it takes to do what the troupe does, the egos involved, the self-esteem issues, the fact that none of them save Her Ladyship at that point is ready to call it a day.
Given that niche, The Dresser may not be for everyone. It’s intimate — in the sense of being both small and intensely personal; it taps into a niche (these are not movie stars); it’s all about the power of Shakespeare; it reads, despite the flourishes that Eyre makes as a director to keep it dimensional, as a play shot as a TV movie; and its pacing is odd, but enjoyable.
Again, the only reason The Dresser was made into this current version is out of love — for Harwood’s play, for Shakespeare, for culture and for a chance to see amazing actors tackle exceptional material. It’s delightful and winning, both sad and funny and touching on so many levels. Welcome this little gem into your arms if you can.
Cast: Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Watson, Sarah Lancashire, Edward Fox, Vanessa Kirby
Based on the play by: Ronald Harwood
Adapted and directed by: Richard Eyre
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)