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The Dresser

Ronald Harwood

6 - 13 October 2018

Nicholas Betteridge


Synopsis

Once a major and influential force in British and American theatre, the era of the actor-manager grew around the concept of the star performance, in which an actor formed a company, and devised a repertoire, to enable him or her to play the leading roles.

After the genre had been established by such early pioneers as Edmund Keen, Thomas Betterton and Colley Cibber, the nineteenth century saw the rise of the actor as a celebrity. Audiences began to flock to theatres to see performances by their favourite “stars”, and it was at this time that the actor-manager system became dominant. Many of the leading actor-managers of Victorian and Edwardian times, including Sir Henry Irving, Sir Charles Wyndham and Herbert Beerbohm Tree, were major international celebrities. While touring often, most of the greatest names established their companies at leading London theatres. After the Second World War, the actor-manager system began to decline, the last of greats being Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Donald Wolfit, both of whom carried on into the 1960s. However, the tradition has more recently been revived by actors such as Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Spacey and Sam West, and is becoming increasingly common in modern fringe theatre, with groups of actors forming their own companies. As well as those who gained great fame and influence, there were many actor-managers who ran smaller companies, occasionally appearing in London, but mainly touring provincial theatres across the country. Whilst not as revered nationally, they maintained a loyal following, and played a vitally important role in the social life of the country, particularly during the second World War, when many continued to tour despite great hardship. It is one of these who is celebrated in Ronald Harwood’s play, The Dresser. Set backstage in a provincial theatre in the darkest days of 1941, as a small touring company is preparing for a performance of King Lear, it focuses on the relationship between its domineering and egocentric actor-manager Sir, and his unfailingly loyal, but unacknowledged personal dresser, Norman. It describes Norman’s struggle, achieved with a combination of gentle care and desperation, in helping Sir to overcome his demons and insecurities, so that he can give what turns out to be the performance of his life. Ronald Harwood was the personal dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit between 1953 and 1958, and whilst he has always denied any suggestion of autobiography, the play was undeniably inspired by his experience as part of Wolfit’s touring company. Our revival is to be directed once again by Nicholas Betteridge, who directed the play when it was first presented so memorably at Lewes Little Theatre in 1986. It promises to offer an evening of pure theatrical indulgence, and the chance to glimpse once again a part of our heritage which played such an important role in shaping the theatre we know today.

Audition

Audition Sat 23 June 2018 10:30am foyer

The Dresser was first presented at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in March 1980, transferring to the Queen’s Theatre, London, in April of the same year, and to Broadway for a lengthy run in November 1981. It has been revived on a number of occasions, most recently in the West End in 2016, and was the subject of a highly successful cinema adaptation in 1983.

It is the moving account of a small touring theatre company struggling to present Shakespeare to provincial audiences during the darkest days of World War II, and in particular the relationship between its domineering and egocentric actor-manager (“Sir”), and his unfailingly loyal, but unacknowledged dresser, Norman. Set backstage in a small provincial theatre as the company prepares for a performance of King Lear, the play describes Norman’s struggle, achieved with a combination of gentle care and desperation, to help Sir to overcome his demons and insecurities, so that he can give what turns out to be the performance of his life. Ronald Harwood was the personal dresser of the legendary actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit between 1953 and 1958, and whilst the play was undeniably inspired by his experience as part of Wolfit’s touring company, he has always denied any suggestion of autobiography. I am delighted to have been afforded the opportunity of reviving this memorable play, which I first had the privilege of directing at this theatre in 1986. All the roles offer significant opportunities for the exploration of character and relationships. In addition to the characters listed here, I will be seeking three or four actors to play company members.

Characters

Sir (60s) The actor-manager. A long serving classical actor, whose own perception of his achievement and renown is greater than the reality. He resents what he sees as a lack of national recognition, which has compelled him to spend much of his career touring. A complex and deeply troubled man, unable to see life from any perspective other than his own.

Norman (40s/50s) A former play-as-cast actor, now Sir’s long serving personal dresser. Utterly devoted to his master. Throughout the play, he offers many hints of the life that he has led, building a picture of a fascinating and multi-layered character. He is resentful of how Sir habitually turns first to Her Ladyship for emotional support, and jealous of Madge’s devotion to Sir.

Her Ladyship (40s-50s) Sir’s long time leading lady. Referred to as his wife, but unmarried. As a young actress, she was drawn to the promise of glamour in the company of a leading man of the theatre. Over the years the stars have long faded, but she remains devoted to Sir, and is resigned to the ingratitude and seeming indifference she receives in return.

Madge (40s-50s) The company stage manager. Pragmatic, practical, business-like. She hides a long standing and unrequited love for Sir. She and Norman both suffer the truth of their feelings for Sir in silence.

Irene (20s) An ambitious young actress who is infatuated with Sir, and determined to become his leading lady. Sir is flattered by her attentions, which threaten to undermine the stability of the company. In Irene, Her Ladyship can see disturbing signs of her younger self.

Geoffrey Thornton (60s) A loyal company actor, highly experienced, but who has never achieved any notable or lasting success. He is frequently called upon to play roles for which he barely suited, (in this case the Fool in King Lear), which he does stoically and uncomplainingly, but he still harbours an ambition to play bigger parts.

Mr Oxenby (30s/40s) A bitter and irascible man, rejected by the armed services on medical grounds. Highly critical of Sir and the way the company is managed.