This May, Masque Theatre bring Ronald Harwood’s classic play to Northampton’s Playhouse Theatre.
We’ve been having a chat with the play’s leading men – Adrian Wyman who plays Sir, and Stewart Magrath who plays Sir’s dresser, Norman.
Tell us a little bit about the story of The Dresser
Adrian: The play, set in London during the air raids of World War Two, tells the story of a touring Shakespearean theatre company as they prepare for their 227th performance of King Lear, but with an hour to curtain up the ‘King’ is missing – when he does arrive it is clear he isn’t well, and it falls to the cast and crew to keep things moving and make sure the show goes on.
Stewart: Norman’s life is being part of the theatre and looking after Sir. It’s all he wants. The play opens in Sir’s dressing room with Norman and Sir’s partner, “Her Ladyship”, fretting that Sir is in hospital and not getting ready for the evening performance of King Lear. Norman is desperate for normality and for the show to go ahead. Cancellation would be traumatic for him. The story unfolds with Norman battling Sir’s self-indulgence and depression with all the tricks he can muster as well as plenty of catty sideswipes at anyone who gets in the way. All helped along by many secretive slurps of brandy that gradually take their toll!
Adrian: But it is more than a story of theatre and theatre folk, it is a story of commitment, friendships and loyalty, all of which are pushed and tested to their limits. It is a story of love, sacrifice and realisation. With bombs falling and the characters risking life and limb to bring the paying audience what they have come to see, this is a tale of selfless devotion to the art, the audience and Will Shakespeare.
What drew you to your character?
Stewart: As an actor, I love developing characters the audience can respond to such as Spike Milligan in Ying Tong, and saw the same potential with Norman. Norman is a deeply layered character with a history he alludes to through stories about his “friend”. He is driven by profoundly simple desires but fears what the future might bring. He can be funny, generous, touching and cutting all in the same sentence. While there have been plenty of famous portrayals, there is plenty of scope to develop the character in different ways.
Adrian: ‘Sir’ is a wonderful character, we learn what drives him, we understand some of the pains he has endured and is going through and how he see himself, or perhaps would like others to. He finds time to think and reflect as we go through the play and I find him frustrating and hard-nosed, but also helpless and lost – and I think it was this mix that makes him a compelling part to play.
Do you think theatre has changed much since Sir’s day?
Stewart: In almost every way!! Entertainment has gone through so many changes since the 1940s. Sir could just about make a living for him and his company by touring provincial theatres with a stock of standard plays. Audiences would come because the theatre was one of the few mass entertainment options available. People would talk about the performances the next day, so to miss one would be to miss out. Cinema and then the advent of TV increased the entertainment options available, so theatre audiences started to dwindle.
Adrian: Theatre as an art form is much the same – I think we have moved on technologically, but the underlying mechanics of acting remain the same – I think what has changed is theatre’s place in the day to day entertainment process. We have more and more options available to us to see things that divert and distract us, including cinema, streaming and digital media, social media, bloggers and vloggers that are producing bitesize format viewing to suit the population on the go.
Stewart: Touring repertory companies struggled and all but died out. Of course now the channels for entertainment are too numerous to mention, and the theatre must constantly innovate to bring new audiences to enjoy its unique experience. One thing in common. Audiences came to see Sir’s productions because he was known to them. He had an element of fame. The same is true today. Audiences will still come to the theatre to see a celebrity on the stage.
Adrian: We are very lucky in Northampton though with the Royal & Derngate and their regular Made in Northampton series which is a close alternative [to Repertory theatre], and the large amount of amateur groups that perform locally, meaning that we have a huge choice of drama and performances throughout the year put on by very capable people.
What has been most challenging about bringing this script to life?
Adrian: Every script has its challenges, but this one is particularly emotional in many aspects – Sir is ill, Norman is determined to see him succeed, Her Ladyship is his rock, Madge is trying to keep the play running, the actors are covering parts that they hadn’t prepared for and the invading forces are making things difficult – bringing all of this to life, whilst, at the same time getting into full make up for King Lear is a challenge (but also great fun).
Stewart: Right at the start there were a number of choices we had to settle from what accents we’d use through to the style we’d use; how to maintain the comic elements without going to pantomime style. Working with Clare Brittain, the Director, we’ve come up with what I think is a good balance. Making these decisions early, together with the cast getting “off book” almost from the first rehearsal, has allowed us to fully explore our characters and the way they work together.
There have been some big names playing your roles in past productions – have you seen any, and have they been an inspiration for your version of the characters?
Stewart: The 1983 Tom Courtenay / Albert Finney film was nominated for 5 Oscars but I never got around to watching it! Once I’d read the script I watched the 2015 film with Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins and this helped me refine some of my character ideas. I saw Sir Ian McKellen’s show at The Royal recently, and learned a great deal that I’ve tried to build into my character of Norman. One big difference, I think, is that the in the film, the audience is missing. While film presents the drama well, I think the audience will pick up more of the comic moments, so enjoy different perspectives from the film.
Adrian: I have seen the Tom Courtney/Albert Finney version, also the Ian McKellen/Anthony Hopkins version, and have listened to the Freddie Jones/Michael Palin radio version. Freddie was the original ‘Sir’ at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, and has an amazing voice – listening to the radio version has probably inspired me the most. Clare, our Director, has provided references and reading material which have proven insightful – including the biography of Sir Donald Wolfit, also written by Ronald Harwood. This includes the story of how Sir Donald left £50 and all of his press cutting books and diaries to Harwood in the hope that he might use these one day to write his biography, and this is reflected in The Dresser with Sir making a similar bequest to Madge with similar strings attached… Sir is a big, big character and to don the mask that the likes of those above have donned before me is a privilege.
Masque Theatre present The Dresser at The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, from Tue 14 to Sat 18 May. Performances are at 7.30pm, and tickets are £9 each, available from www.masquetheatre.co.uk/tickets or by calling 07783 531542