FringeReview UK 2018
Nicholas Betteridge again directs Ronald Harwood’s 1980 The Dresser – as he did memorably in 1986. Tim Freeman’s set – a hyper-naturalist take on a 1942 provincial theatre – is realised by Keith Gilbert and David Rankin, with Don Plimmer on specialist design and Charlotte Carrig supplying greasepaint. Trevor Morgan’s lighting veers between stage-bulb lighting and sudden blackouts. His sound makes much of bomb bursts and sudden bursts of noises off. Deborah Lade’s costumes wholly evoke the war.
Nicholas Betteridge couldn’t wait to direct Ronald Harwood’s 1980 The Dresser – again. In 1986 he set the bar high with Derek Mason as Sir and Michael Bloom as Norman in a Legendary LLT production. Here the sovereign team of Tony Bannister and Chris Parke are joined by a cast with no weak links.
It’s a play about a vanished theatre of actor-managers, but ultimately its theme is love, selfish love and self-love, of Sir’s self-driven schedule to destruction (every night something awe-inspiring, a different Shakespeare). And the different love he’s inspired, in at least his three longest-suffering colleagues.
Tim Freeman’s set – a hyper-naturalist take on a 1942 provincial theatre – is beautifully realised by Keith Gilbert and David Rankin, with Don Plimmer on specialist design and Charlotte Carrig supplying all the old greasepaint: each of these details mesmerise.
There’s a stage-right box of a dressing room with a dark green wallpaper fade, dressing-room paraphernalia with a dresser at the back with photos and stowed-away alcohol. The rest of the stage, a war-grimed view from the wings, is less used till the second act, but consummate down to the ‘quiet’ 1940s sign-writing as stage left there’s light from the stage where the company exits, enters, and mills about where storm machines – timps and metal sheeting, await.
The whole production exudes what the design sets up: A superb evening of flat-out provincial Lear perilously swaying on the edge as bombs fall. Trevor Morgan’s lighting veers between stage-bulb lighting and sudden blackouts (consummately used at the interval). his sound makes much of bomb bursts and sudden bursts of noises off.
Deborah Lade’s costumes give off the feeling camphor and make-do, of once-bright russet robes for Lear and provincial drossy crowns. And old green jackets for ancient actors en route home.
Harwood was Sir Donald Wolfitt’s Dresser, and though much is autobiography, here ‘Sir’ as he’s known is two notches down, not really knighted, a fine not universally feted actor, exhausted and in the opening clearly entering dementia. It’s brought about by an incipient heart attack and exhaustion; both can starve and disorient the brain, to the extent of Sir having thrust off his ‘lendings’ and stamped on his hat in the street, ending through Norman’s help, in hospital. The wonder is he hath endured so long.
If Bannister’s Lear did but usurp his wife as Pussy his common-law ‘Lady’ wife asserts, demanding he quit (as she herself lost the chance to go to Hollywood), Norman his loyal if dyspeptic Dresser is determined the show go on.
Norman regrets pushing Sir to hospital. He knew a friend who was hospitalised ending in Colwyn bay, and it did him no good. Only Doctor theatre – never mentioned but the MO of the play – saved him. Norman’s talking of himself. He often does. So does Sir.
Norman’s reasons are complex. Knowing Sir will collapse without Doctor Theatre he’s equally aware the company will collapse without Sir – these are the dying days of the actor-manager companies; there’s no safety net. That includes Norman, a sometime actor facing life in a boarding house. Venal as he is, Harwood convinces us Norman, not above cruelty and savage self-interest, lives for Sir and the theatre itself.
Seeing Sir so clearly even Sir appreciates it, Fool to Lear, Norman gets most of the best lines. When Sir complains of the bombed Grand Theatre Plymouth as his debut venue, Norman returns ‘They weren’t to know’ of the Germans. However when Dandy Freeman’s pert Irene the company ‘mattress’ tries moving in on Sir Norman threatens her not just verbally but with promise of violence. What sign is she? Scorpio? He knows her ambitions will kill Sir. Freeman assured debut exudes a bright-face innocence with a sexy edge.
Parke brings out the wild pain of the tremulous Norman beneath: the bitchily loyal, preternaturally hurt boy breaking through the coping equivocating peacemaker and coper of all slings and arrows. His most formidable adversaries in one sense are his closest allies and rivals: Chloe Franks also making her debut, makes much of Her Ladyship’s busty now less elfin Cordelia whom Sir must carry on in the last scene.
Her Ladyship’s contraband chocolate wins out over cigarettes, and Franks convinces us she’s not entirely devoid of feeling for her partner. Her embittered entrances exits and flounces slam disappointment, a woman who might have made some living on the silver screen.
More rationally, the administrator who sensibly feels the performance must be cancelled has to be reasoned with. Jennifer Henley’s chiselled spinsterhood under the carapace of manager Madge who’s always wistfully desired Sir for herself, coils tender gestures towards the end when her true identity unspools in front of Sir and he promises her his most prized ring – which she later has to claim for herself. Sir knows that to offer the ring earlier would have been misconstrued. He’s not blind he gently tells her, and she acknowledges it. The recognition between Bannister and Henley form one set of the most tender exchanges; Henley’s performance is a tremulously blossoming miracle.
The other is with Norman; their duetting forms the backbone of the evening. Bannister’s performance towers because reserves of tremendous energy are shivered out in a crumbling frame exactly like the Lear Sir portrays, a burnt out cage of something vaster in his prime. Does this Sir but slightly know himself?
There’s moments when recognition alternately dawns and dims, when he, like Lear with Gloucester and Cordelia, recognizes the faithful, Norman and Madge. Here the word ‘friend’ or even ‘only friend’ are bestowed capriciously like the ring Sir promises Madge. Bannister also unsheaths a slightly different accent as if to underline the effort the armour of Sir has cost and how its slippage argues the distance travelled and the length of the fall from actorly speech.
Bannister most of all illumines the sudden fits and weepings Sir falls into, terrifying slips of even a human mask beneath the actor’s one. They show us the way a man of towering energy at the extremes can only collapse in a sparks shower, taking everything with him. There’s something of Greek terror in the comedic writing.
You sense Sir’s and Bannister’s intense absorption in role not just because of his faintly absurd but sincere speeches but because he can never believe those toiling in storm effects including Norman are doing enough: this always happens when he’s acting well, a heartening back-handed moment. Wolfitt similarly complained, according to Harwood.
Sir’s self-ironizing too neatly skewers German bombers, vanishing just when most needed to create the right noises off. Sir scores when he can guy the opposition – hardly ever the Germans.
Moulded round a provincial night’s Lear this reading of a performance through flashes of lightning is most climactic when not begun: Sir’s sudden freeze before his first entrance is tricked out to preternatural lengths, barely credible, yet this sometimes happened.
Thereafter you’re willing Sir to get through his fits of desponding, his half invaded by Irene – scooping her up to test Cordelian lightness deliciously mistaken by her.
Sir’s flirting with elfin Irene thus marries practical with lustful. And such fine-boned girls he confides never makes great actors. Great actresses have legs like tree trunks!
There’s fine support too from Mark Gourly as the superannuated and promoted Geoffrey Thornton as Fool, grateful and suddenly more ambitious. Chris Bowers’ war-limping Oxenby snorting Bolshevism at Sir whilst showing his real disgust lies in Sir’s not reading his play, is raspingly metallic rather than wooden. His mangling of the last lines as Edgar goes thankfully unnoticed, underlining the play’s scathed edge to the flames. But unaccountably having refused the union-damning labour of operating the wind machine he pitches in anyway, then disowns his one altruistic action.
At the end Parke, alone on stage dims his voice down with the lighting to a tremulous desolation that strikes a chord of the tragedy we’ve seen. ‘And my poor fool is hanged.’ Sir explains to Geoffrey the Cordelia/Fool doubling now taken for granted. Norman’s not hanged but seems a Tarot’s hanged man, even more perhaps than Her Ladyship and Madge, sans everything.
Betteridge brisks the pace with a team he can trust; they in turn exhale a sour wartime air. Betteridge and his cast have matched that wonderful 1986 production, if memory serves – though I was much younger then! There’s nailing performances from Bannister and perhaps most of all Parke, with depictions as strong in their way from Henley and Franks, with fine support from Gourly, Bowers, Freeman: not a weak link. Robert Hamilton (magnificent as Shylock in July) and Darren Heather swell the ranks but don’t speak. It’s a masterly play from the inside, and this consummate portrayal of near-disaster ending in a successful one, is as good as it gets.