'The Dresser' , by Ronald Harwood

7/8 and 14/15 January, 2006

Felpham Village Hall

This was the Bognor Regis Drama Club production that triggered several of the production and cast to form The Regis Players for the staging of further challenging and rewarding plays as "The Dresser".

Norman Doug Hammond
Her Ladyship Julia Mason
Madge Joan Soothill
Irene Gemma Nicholas
Sir John Covey
Geoffrey Thornton Paul Ramsay
Oxenby Chris Hoff
Duke of Gloucester David Rosser
Duke of Kent Matthew Blyther
Duke of Albany/ Knight/Gentleman Kenton Batley
Pianist Carole Rogers
Directed by Peter Green
Co-Director, Prompt, Line Coach Sandy Knight
Production Assistant, Publicity Renee Kramer
Stage Manager Elaine Green
Technical Manager/ Lighting Alex Marner
Lear Scenes Video Production/ Editing Peter Green
Wardrobe Rebecca Haig
Props Judy Roberts
Video/ Sound Operator  Matthew Hoff  

"With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain ........ For the rain it raineth every day"

Fool - King Lear Act III Sc ii , Clown -Twelfth Night Act V Sc i

Synopsis

The Play follows one traumatic day of a touring Shakespearean company as they try to do their bit to 'Stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood' presenting plays across war torn Britain in 1942.

The play was first performed in 1980 with Tom Courtney in the leading role of Norman, the actor manager’s personal dresser and in 1983 the play was made into a magnificent 5 Oscar 7 BAFTA nominated film where Tom Courtney reprised his role as Norman and Albert Finney played ‘Sir’ the Actor/Manager of the company. Recently the play was performed in the West End with Nicholas Lyndhurst playing Norman to much critical acclaim.

Many see a strong link between the character of Sir and the famous actor-manager the late Sir Donald Wolfit. It is no surprise therefore that the author Ronald Harwood was Sir Donald Wolfit's personal dresser for nearly five years!

In the play we see that the company is driven by 'Sir' the actor-manager who typifies the all powerful tyrannical figure who demanded hard work, devotion and loyalty for meager wages and, above all, a requirement never to upstage him or intrude on his light!

As if touring the provinces month in month out with long uncomfortable journeys and staying in cold damp third rate digs was not enough, the war years posed additional deprivations and production problems. All the good young able bodied actors were away serving with HM Forces so the actor-manager was often struggling to fill parts with older, infirm, disabled (or as we shall see slightly overweight!) stock and then there were the problems of dealing with air-raid warnings and bombs falling around or indeed on the theatre they were supposed to be performing in.

'Sir' is about to stage 'Lear' in a northern town and this will be his 227th performance of the King. The problem is that all the problems and challenges have worn him out and he has disappeared with only a couple of hours to curtain up and a suspected breakdown.

Sir's wife, Her Ladyship, is playing Cordelia and is desperate for him to cancel the performance and for him to announce his retirement. Madge, the stage manager, feels the same but Norman, Sir's personal dresser for the last 16 years, has centered his life around looking after Sir and is determined to deal with the situation as he evidently has done so many times before.

As the play unfolds we see that despite the veil of authority that the tyrannical actor-manager displays to his company, it is Norman that is holding the creaking company together. It is indeed Norman that coaxes Sir back from the abyss of abject desperation and exhaustion to once again deck the Triple Crown and give, what turns out to be, one of his finest performances of Lear, albeit a performance that costs Sir his life.

The play provides amazing challenging roles for the actors playing the roles of Norman and Sir - who hardly leave the stage and also the three ladies in Sir’s life - his long suffering partner Her Ladyship, Irene the youngest member of the troupe eager for promotion to headier roles and Madge, Sir’s stage manager for twenty years and the one who has loved him from a distance ‘in the wings’.

On studying the play it become clear to me that ‘love’ is at the very core of this amazing work. C.S. Lewis in ‘The Four Loves explores the meaning of love in four main areas - charity (caritas), affection, eros and friendship and in The Dresser we can see at least five ways that love exists in Sir’s struggling little company of actors. There is Sir’s love of the theatre and playing the huge Shakespearean roles that are ebbing away his strength and (in Lear) killing him. There is the love between Sir and Her Ladyship that years ago passed from the heady physical love to much needed mutual dependence. There is the heart rendering ‘Waiting in the Wings’ love that has remained dormant for twenty years - that of Madge for Sir - something that Sir is aware of but has remained unspoken as Madge is too useful as SM. There is the raw sexual love of Sir for his aspiring (and prepared to do anything to get on) sibling actresses worked out in the play with Irene. And finally there is that greatest of loves - the unselfish love that gives without any thought of what may be given back in return - the unconditional love of Norman for Sir.

Norman survives all the slings and arrows in his stormy relationship with Sir and manages to deal with any crisis by reflecting on his ‘friends’. Who are Norman’s friends? The clues are there in the text if you look out for them!

At the heart of this play is also Lear - ‘the greatest test known to an actor’ - containing two of Shakespeare's most famous speeches - ‘Reason not the need’ and ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks’. This, possibly his greatest tragedy, is no incidental backdrop to The Dresser but something that by direct quotation and action ‘from a wings perspective’ keeps the play at white heat throughout.

I have been very fortunate to have both a terrific cast and production team to work out these ideas and hope the theatrical theme will appeal to all who enjoy live theatre with its brilliant mix of comedy, tragedy and pathos.

Peter Green, Director

Note for the Audiences

Please note that you our audience are also part of the play! You are not only watching the play ‘The Dresser’ but also, via the miracle of theatre, you are part of the 1942 audience in a northern town braving a Luftwaffe bombing raid to watch a performance of King Lear. This means that some of the curtain closures are not what they seem and don’t mean the interval has started so beware! Many thanks to those who have added to the atmosphere of the 1942 war torn Britain setting with appropriate dress (intentional or otherwise!) and please do join in during the interval the sing along with Carole at the Piano in her medley of war songs. Hot beverages will be available during the interval at the servery near the entrance to the hall.

King Lear - The Play within the Play

The first recorded performance of King Lear was on December 26th 1606 for King James VI/I at Whitehall. It is thought that Richard Burbage (c.1567-1619), played the title role. and that Robert Armin (1568-1615) played the Fool. The critic Ringler suggests that the boy actor playing Cordelia doubled as the Fool. In Act 5, Lear says of Cordelia, ‘my poor fool is hanged’ making us suppose the Fool is dead too, giving a special poignancy to these six short words.

King Lear was unsuccessfully revived in its full original text and only really came to public attention when the Irish poet and dramatist, Nahum Tate (who wrote the carol ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’), adapted it in 1681. Tate cut the Fool’s part and gave the play a ‘happy’ ending by ensuring Lear and Cordelia survived, Cordelia married Edgar and they ruled as regents while Lear lived on in his dotage!

Tate’s text only really came into question when the actor-manager David Garrick (1717-79) staged his first production at Drury Lane in 1742, aged just 25. Garrick’s adaptation of Lear was an amalgamation of Tate’s version and Shakespeare’s play. He cut over 200 of Tate’s lines but retained the happy ending and omitted the Fool. Lear became one of Garrick’s most acclaimed roles.

Performances of King Lear were suspended during George III’s bout of supposed madness as they were deemed to be inappropriate. The ban was lifted after the death of George III in 1820 and Edmund Kean mounted a production that came

near to restoring the full text, but still retained Tate’s ending. However, three years later Kean decided to attempt the play with the tragic ending. He lasted a mere 3 performances before reverting to Tate’s version.

The English actor-manager William Charles Macready was the first to play a fully Shakespearean version, Fool and all, in 1838

Additional Notes on Lear from Sarah- Jane Goodall

I'm really glad you (Peter the Director) have found so much in 'The Dresser', especially all the different 'loves'. This can be paralleled with Lear in the way Cordelia, Kent and The Fool loved him. He also expected love from Goneril and Regan but they merely thought he was a silly old man. It is clear from reading 'King Lear' that The Fool and Cordelia are the voice of reason. It is also clear (from various sources!) that often these two characters are played by the same actor as they never appear on stage at the same time. This certainly would have been the case in Shakespeare's day - when all the cast would have been male anyway.

The main them in 'King Lear' is nature - weather, character etc. It is only when Lear is stripped of all his royalty and trappings that he can really see what it is like in the real world ie. out on the heath with Poor Tom.

The other theme is sight - physical (Gloucester's eyes) and hindsight (Edmund) and also the idea of understanding - "oh I see!". You will find there are countless times that characters say they see.

There is also the theme of madness. Edgar feigns madness as Poor Tom. Lear becomes mad with confusion and senility although sanity wins through in the end. This is comparable to Sir in 'The Dresser' where he strips off in the market, just as Lear says "unclothe me". It is the stress and pressure of everyone relying on both characters that causes their madness. Lear realises he cannot cope and decides to split his kingdom - with disastrous effects. Sir on the other hand won't be beaten - by illness, old age or the Germans!

I think I would say that Kent is the parallel of Norman. It doesn't matter what Lear says, Kent won't leave him and continues to love him. Norman bites back when he's drunk when Sir goes on about Norman's 'friends' but still won't leave him because he loves him too much.

Videoing the Lear Scenes

The film version of The Dresser with Albert Finney and Tom Courtney has of course greater scope to show such extra scenes as Sir having a breakdown outside the theatre in the bombed out town they are performing in, and also the Lear scenes are filmed on the actual stage where they are being performed on. To recreate the Lear scenes on the same stage as The Dresser is being performed on is quite challenging. I know a director of The Dresser who considered it irrelevant what play was being performed, completely ignored the scenes and just had the words spoken off stage. In the the last production of The Dresser that I have seen, the company enacted the Lear scenes stage right - i.e. inside Sir's dressing room as this was the only piece of stage they could use and it looked weird to say the least - I was pleasantly disappointed as Sir would say!

Having studied the Lear scenes used and bowled over by the pieces chosen, including the famous storm scene, I was determined to try and recreate these scenes as though they were actually happening from a wings perspective during The Dresser play. To do this the Lear scenes were separately rehearsed and then videoed with fully costumed actors and appropriate props (including a huge heaving tree in the storm scene!) in the Rank Barn in Aldwick. The video clips were then edited to 'frame' each shot as though it were being viewed through stage right wings perspective rather then as the audience would see it. The colour balance was also altered - e.g. in the storm scene the colours were changed from warm tungsten as filmed to dark blues and greens with plenty of flashes of lightning added. The sound was also challenging - not least removing all the traffic noises from the road that passed the barn!

One bonus that was derived from this approach was that through all the last month of rehearsals of The Dresser, it was possible to use the finished Lear scenes using a DVD and television so that the cast were very familiar with what was happening.

For the actual performances of The Dresser, the Lear scenes were projected full scale to the rear stage left of the stage and the interplay of live characters in the wings with their filmed characters in the same costumes on the projected Lear scenes was extremely effective. An unexpected highlight for the audience was the Court scene where all the court are waiting for king Lear to appear but he is frozen with stage fright in the wings. In the projected scene Oxenby announces he will try to fid the king and leaves the stage, appears as the real Oxenby on The Dresser stage, then goes back on the Lear stage and reappears back in the film! Every performance this little scene produced huge applause from the audience and proved that all the hard work in doing it this way had really paid off.

Peter Green

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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