The Dresser is intriguing on so many levels. First of all, I was personally intrigued to learn that playwright, Ronald Harwood, was born in my hometown, Cape Town. He moved to the U.K. to pursue a career in the theatre, and The Dresser was based on his own experience working in that capacity for the actor-manager, Sir Donald Wolfit, in London during the 1950s. Harwood found his true calling as a writer, though, and The Dresser was his 6th play, picking up nominations for Laurence Olivier, Tony and Drama Desk Awards, and also Academy Awards when Harwood adapted it for film. By the way, he was nominated for an Oscar again for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and he won for The Pianist. But, back to The Dresser.
The play is intriguing in the way it takes the audience backstage. Whether you have trodden the boards yourself, or you have only seen theatre from the auditorium, it is exciting to be part of the rituals of the half hour call, the process of becoming a character during the course of putting on make-up and costumes, and the whole theatrical notion that the show must go on. In the case of the The Dresser, the show is King Lear, and Harwood draws fascinating parallels, not only in the sense of the declining power of the actor-manager and Lear, but also the interdependence of Lear and the Fool, which is mirrored in the interdependence of the actor-manager and the dresser. These are clearly the two central characters in the play, and they are magnificently played by Carl Schuur and Bruce Nelson in the Everyman Theatre production. Given that the play was based on Harwood’s own experience, the play pivots on the character of the dresser, and Bruce gives one of the most wide-ranging performances of his very agile career. Even watching from the second row, there wasn’t a moment when he wasn’t absolutely authentic – hilarious and heart wrenching by turns.
The true joy of watching an Everyman Theatre production is the ensemble playing. Founder, Vincent Lancisi’s vision of a repertory company (such as The Dresser describes) pays off time and again in the trust, the give and take, of the company members, even when – perhaps even especially when – they are playing supporting roles. This allows the actors to be vulnerable enough to take their performance to a level that translates into an intensely moving and exhilarating experience for the audience.