The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, adapted by David Blount

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The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, adapted by David Blount (1993).  Dir. Blount.  Perf. Michael Palin, Freddie Jones.  BBC Radio 4 Extra, 31 January 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 3 March 2015.


It’s difficult to approach any revival of Harwood’s memorable 1980 play without thinking of the 1983 film, in which Tom Courtenay reprised his original stage role as Norman, the eponymous dresser, while a slightly-too-young Albert Finney played “Sir,” the old-style Shakespearean actor playing Lear for the umpteenth time during a provincial tour in the midst of an air-raid.


David Blount’s radio production had Freddie Jones reprising his original role from the 1980 stage performance.  As “Sir,” he possessed the vocal strength necessary for an old-style barnstormer, while at the same time displaying a touching sense of vulnerability.  After several years criss-crossing the country, he was quite literally a spent force; but nothing could persuade him to give up.  Perhaps this was due to a misplaced sense of patriotism (the desire to take Shakespeare to towns and cities which otherwise would be starved of culture), or maybe simply due to the fact that he knew of no other existence.  Even the blandishments of his wife, “Her Ladyship” (Melinda Walker) could not dissuade him.


As Norman, Palin was perhaps a little too vocally reminiscent of Courtenay, with his high-pitched tones and latent jealousies.  He could not stand the thought of anyone getting close to “Sir,” for fear of losing his privileged position.  Although enjoying his role as “Sir’s” closest confidante and cheerleader (with his endless stories about imaginary friends), it was clear that Norman was as vulnerable as his employer; neither of them could exist without the other.


Thematically speaking, Blount’s revival portrayed “Sir’s” company as a family trying their best to survive amidst difficult conditions.  Mr. Thornton (Geoffrey Matthew), a bit-part actor thrust into the role of the Fool, was effusive in thanking his employer, while Oxenby (Keith Drinkel) resented “Sir’s” authority, but seemed unable – or unwilling – to find alternative employment.  Better the devil you know than someone different.  The stage-manager Madge (Jill Graham) resembled the ugly duckling, perpetually devoted to her employer but resigned to the fact that he would never look at her.  Although professing that he loved her, “Sir’s” tone seemed rather insincere, almost as if he were speaking platitudes to ensure her continued loyalty.


Yet this family had its fragilities.  In one climatic scene, “Her Ladyship” tried her best to puncture her husband’s illusions.  Far from pursuing a noble cause, his company was nothing more than a third-rate touring outfit playing tatty theaters with a motley crew of elderly men and nonentities; she was fed up with living in his shadow, and performing all the necessary chores of a touring actor – darning, patching up costumes, and living in shabby digs.  She wanted a life.  Although such sentiments might have been true, they fell on deaf ears: “Sir” could no more give up touring than his dresser.


Norman experienced similar conflicts later on, as he discovered that “Sir” had not mentioned him in his unfinished autobiography My Life, despite years of devoted service.  With unbridled resentment, he recalled all those difficult occasions when he had picked his employer up off the floor, helped him put on his make-up, and made him ready for the night’s performance.  Despite such yeoman service, “Sir” had never bothered to commend him.  Yet Norman could never envisage any life other than the one he had chosen; his wail at the end, as he wondered what he was going to do once “Sir” had passed away, was particularly poignant.


Harwood has said in the past that The Dresser was based on his own experiences of working as a dresser to the old actor-manager Donald Wolfit.  It is important to stress, however, that the play is a fictional piece, and should not be interpreted as a biographical portrait of Wolfit as a man.  Although Wolfit spent most of the war years on tour, he remained healthy throughout, and did not give up his operation until 1953.  Nonetheless The Dresser offers a vivid recreation of a form of theater that simply does not exist these days, as well as showing how individuals prefer the safety of continued employment, even if their lives are mostly spent doing unrewarding work.