Sirs Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins do much to banish my bad memories of Ronald Harwood in a spectacular version of The Dresser
“One Lear more or less in the world won’t make any difference”
Despite its stellar casting and excellent notices, it has taken a while to bring myself to watch the TV version of The Dresser. In advance of the 2016 production which toured before hitting the West End, playwright Ronald Harwood took precisely no prisoners and gave exactly no shits in giving a series of interviews (#1, #2) which, to put it lightly, did not endear him to me. And rightly or wrongly (only being human), I let that colour my appreciation of his art.
A little distance has softened me though and I have to say, I found much to appreciate in this televised version, not least the presence of Sirs Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen in the two central roles of an ageing Shakespearean and his manservant. Its the middle of the Second World War and their production of King Lear is still touring the regions, even though its leading man is perilously close to losing his faculties.
Raging against the dying of the light, Hopkins’ Sir is achingly sorrowful, sad about a career that has never quite caught fire, terrified about declining health that means he’s losing lines he’s performed over 200 times. But it is the counterbalance of McKellen’s Norman that really elevates The Dresser, a sharp-tongued presence whose complicated relationship with his master has its own special charge, particularly in the moments where it seems like it might shift the power balance.
There’s also exceptional work from Sarah Lancashire as stage manager Madge and Emily Watson as Sir’s wife Her Ladyship, each bringing far more their characters than Harwood deigned to put on the page. The tangles of pent-up emotion and repressed feelings manifest in such powerful ways with a cast of this quality. But there’s no hiding that it remains a rather niche narrative, so concerned as it is with the life of the theatre. Still, I’d recommend a watch.