A Tour de Force

THE DRESSER by Ronald Harwood, directed by Sean Foley, with Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith, Theatre Royal Brighton, Tuesday 20th Sept, 7.45pm.

King Lear, that colossus of plays, filled from the crown to the toe, top-full of cultural significance. And Ronald Harwood piles it on even further, 5 time frames (at least): Lear's own time, medieval of course; the 'remember, remember' year of the Gunpowder Plot, 1605, when Shakespeare wrote it; that cusp of a time, the early years of the Nineteenth Century when the Classical gave way to the Romantic and the stage was illuminated by the lightning of Edmund Kean; to the bombing raids of the Second World War, when this play is set; and finally, that seminal era, 1980 (Reagan and Thatcher, remember, remember) when The Dresser was first performed. And that's not even mentioning the present time of this revival. (You're wishing you'd never asked.)

So, lot's of theatrical stuff, in jokes, references for the cognoscenti, a wonderful vehicle for those amateurs who don't mind learning lots of lines?

You couldn't be more wrong. (Sorry to be so blunt.)

Lear is consumed by the idea that he is a king to his bones. That just because he isn't King anymore doesn't mean that he stops being king, if you know what I mean.

It's possible to track down why the Lear of Shakespeare's play, and the real King James before whom that play was first performed, may have entertained such an idea, made it flesh. The Divine Right of Kings was a reality in a way we struggle to understand in our secular age, when the thought of France or Spain landing an army on the South Coast seems laughable, but why Harwood's Lear can entertain something like the divine right of actor-managers is much less clear, though, for our time, much more interesting.

Shakespeare's Lear 'owns' kingship. As long as he's around, he's king; in his own mind, of course. But this misplaced sense of ownership isolates him, from his family, his subjects and his true friends.

What does our Lear of The Dresser own? The clue is Edmund Kean, the contemporary of Keats and Beethoven. Harwood's Lear, the 'Sir' of his play, has a ring which may have once belonged to Kean, and he seems to be very concerned that the ring is 'passed on', as his behest to some future generation of actors.

The late Eighteenth, early Nineteenth Centuries, the industrial revolution, saw the birth of the idea that people were the servants of machines. Artists pushed back against this heresy, asserting that far from being servants, people were individual geniuses and that whatever marvels of the sublime that may be thought to exist in nature, such powerful and divine forces also existed inside every single one of us.

Naturally, (this was a hierarchical age) some of these geniuses were more divine than others and it would help the cause to identify a supreme or over-arching genius who would prove the rule.

Cue Shakespeare, (or Keats, not to mention Berlioz etc. etc.) Kean's timing couldn't have been more perfect. Audiences were primed for a new kind of acting, a new kind of Shakespeare, interpretations that could render incarnate the titanic forces unleashed by this combination of genius writer with inspired actor.

OK, he owns an old ring, anything else?

What he owns is the conviction of his own individual genius, that he has a direct line to the divine interpretation, the re-incarnation of the master.

And what's truly heartbreaking (amid the laughter, it has to be said) is the way his imagined ownership of the romantic ideal separates him from those who would do anything to help him, who offer him unconditional love, friendship, service, support, labour, generosity, loyalty; he spurns them all and for what?

For an abstract idea.

Is horrifying too strong a word for the fact that this play premiered in the first years of Margaret Thatcher's Prime Ministership? Thatcher, who fostered the Big Bang, who encouraged those in finance to see themselves as individual geniuses, Masters of the Universe, who paid themselves gigantic bonuses (and still do), who could go home at night and sleep like babies, who drove us all off a cliff eight years ago?

The Dresser feels like the end, the full stop, of that amazing period in the theatre, begun by Beckett, via Pinter, Stoppard, Ayckbourn, et al, writers trying to bring about a new, post-Romantic era, but which was overtaken and submerged by a storm of money, of a collective madness of abstract concepts made flesh.

There is a point where Sir talks about being outside of himself, seeing himself acting Lear, as though from above, and not knowing what is coming next, seeing everything for the first time, being 'in the moment'. But this moment of self-awareness is fleeting. He is engaged in a struggle to maintain his imaginary persona, his isolation.

As you can probably tell, I was utterly engaged from first to last. Ken Stott is a wonderful monster, sympathetic, lovable, mischievous, enraging, driven, completely manipulative.

Reece Shearsmith, as Norman, the eponymous Dresser, is never not 'in the moment'. His credo is: 'never despair' and he keeps up the joy, the love, the sheer optimism, whatever is asked of him.

This is a big play, two big plays, almost like doing Lear with add-ons. Given the importance of the ideas, the largeness of the themes, the allusions to other major writers and plays, it would be easy to succumb to a kind of importance, of trying to communicate to the audience your awareness of the scale of the task.

But the actors are never not real, never not human, never not completely in the moment. We never feel that they know what's coming, or that they are presenting some kind of clever re-imagining of the familiar.

The setting and the costumes, the whole production, managed that difficult balance between realism and a genuine theatrical experience.

A tour de force, which I'm very glad 'toured'! I'm sure Donald Wolfit himself would have been charmed.

Paul Corcoran