The Dresser: Theatre of War

WHAT HAPPENS BACKSTAGE IS ALWAYS TRUE DRAMA. AND OFTEN PURE COMEDY.

dresserI went to see the musical “Sugar” last week. It’s a shame that I don’t do that more often. Apart from enjoying the show, I also get a kick out of the whole scene, the magic of the theatre and everything that goes on behind the curtain. Perhaps I feel this way because my visits to the theatre are so rare. Peter Yates’s film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s “The Dresser” is excellent not just because of its drama and performances, but also its portrayal of the theatre as an institution that will last, come hell or high water. 

The story takes place during World War II. Hitler’s bombers are pounding London, but a touring Shakespeare company won’t relent. Its star player, a larger-than-life character who is titled “Sir” (Albert Finney), has just finished another glorious performance and gives the audience what it wants – a slight movement of the curtain, and then a carefully mannered reappearance as he takes a bow to thundering applause. Then he retires to his dressing room, utterly spent. Every performance is a tour de force, but it’s up to the dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay), to make sure that Sir finds the strength and will-power to get up on stage in the first place. It’s a long procedure that requires not only persuasion, flattering and prodding, but also certain routines. In fact, getting Sir to play King Lear once again is such an arduous task that Norman couldn’t do it without regular swigs from a flask of whiskey that he always carries in his pocket. This evening is no different from any other – the performance is sold out, a German attack is imminent, and Sir is putting on his makeup to play Lear… but he doesn’t seem sure of which Shakespeare play he’s doing tonight. 

Insight into a great actor’s ego
Harwood apparently based this story on his own experiences, working as a dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit, a legendary Shakespearean thesp. This first-hand knowledge gives him insight into a great actor’s ego, his strength and vulnerabilities, as well as the sometimes unorthodox decisions that are made behind the scenes in order to make a specific performance of a play work. Harwood’s observations are conveyed with a great sense of humor, but also passion for the theatre, the art of acting and appreciation for the bonds we make – for better or worse. Relationships between humans are in all shapes, but there’s always sacrifice involved to some degree, which is bitterly, and touchingly, obvious in the film’s final scenes. The source material may be a play itself, but Yates makes it work as a movie, showing what London looked like during the Blitz as well as the somewhat run-down theatre that is the scene of the drama. The focus lies firmly on the two lead characters, but there was no need for supporting players to worry; every one of them has at least a scene or two where they get to say something profound or witty, or serve as a key factor in the drama between Sir and Norman. Still, this is Finney and Courtenay’s show. The former didn’t play Sir on stage, but is formidable in one of his best screen performances as the overblown but immensely fragile actor who’s always asking for the impossible; the latter did play Norman on stage both on West End and Broadway, and is equally brilliant as the gay dresser whose devotion to Sir is so complete that it could erase his personality. 

The dialogue is chock-full of funny, sarcastic, ingenious lines. Yates, who died recently, may be primarily remembered for the car chase in Bullitt (1968), but this film is another testament to his skill – milking the best out of a great script and wonderful actors.

The Dresser 1983-Britain. 118 min. Color. Produced by Ronald Harwood, Peter Yates. Directed by Peter Yates. Screenplay, Play: Ronald Harwood. Cast: Albert Finney (Sir), Tom Courtenay (Norman), Edward Fox (Oxenby), Zena Walker, Eileen Atkins, Michael Gough.

Trivia: Remade as a TV movie, The Dresser (2015).

Berlin: Best Actor (Finney).

Quote: “The critics? No, I have nothing but compassion for them. How can I hate the crippled, the mentally deficient, and the dead?” (Finney)

Last word: “I’ll tell you what happened, it was a very nice thing, I didn’t really produce the film … Peter Yates, the director, had such a good time on the film that he gave me a producer’s credit, but I did nothing, honestly. When we were in Hollywood for the premiere … he drove me up Sunset Boulevard, and he said, ‘Look up there, look up there,’ and there was this huge neon sign saying ‘A Peter Yates – Ronald Harwood Film.’ I’ve never had before and I’ve never had since. He’s the sweetest man in the world … Peter Yates has no ego of any kind, and he just gave it to me as a present, and it was a wonderful gift.” (Harwood, Rocketman)

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