The Dresser finishes its tour with a couple of weeks at Chichester Festival Theatre – a chance for Reece Shearsmith to make his CFT debut (January 25-February 4).
Reece is Norman ‘the dresser’ opposite Ken Stott as lead actor ‘Sir’ in Sir Ronald Harwood’s exploration of the relationship between two men who are reluctantly and inevitably co-dependent.
As World War Two rages, backstage in a provincial English theatre, an ageing, once-famous classical actor is troubled.
Sir, the last in a dying breed of great Shakespearean actors, is unwilling to take to the stage to deliver his renowned portrayal of King Lear. It falls to his faithful dresser Norman to rouse another great performance from him, to keep both the show and its star from falling apart.
The piece has gathered some great reviews along the way, but as Reece says it remains a production which is growing: “Theatre is a relentless beast. You have got to be keeping it fresh each time. Nothing is ever a short run in the theatre. You get the early reviews, and it is never of the show it will be. You are learning all the time.”
Just how it is changing is a nebulous thing, Reece says: “A lot of it depends on the audience. You are in the position of being able to stack one audience against another and you are thinking ‘Why did they laugh uproariously at this line last night and yet tonight you could hear a pin drop?’ Audiences assume a collective identity. Sometimes people will come in and they will decide very early on that this is a play, but other audiences will give themselves permission to laugh and decide that it is a comedy. Or maybe another night you will get one lone laugher who will put everyone else off laughing.”
And yes, from the stage, Reece is very well aware of all that’s happening: “I am very, very well aware of all the iPhones at the start lighting up people’s faces because they haven’t switched them off yet. People are loathe to be disconnected for 45 minutes. I think it is the Youtube culture. People send me an email with a clip or something, and if it is longer than a minute and a half, I give up, I just think I haven’t got time for that.”
And it is worrying where it is all heading: “They are proposing seats in theatres where you can live tweet in America, I think. If you do that, you are not engaging with the play. You are just commenting on it.”
That’s not going to be happening in Chichester – where coincidentally the playwright will be just a few miles up the road.
“Sir Ronald came to see it the other night, and he said it was one of the best productions of the play he has ever seen. I was really pleased that he liked it so much.
“The Dresser is very much about the theatricality of that world. Audiences enjoy peeking behind the curtain into that world and seeing it laid bare. It is human nature. The play has got a relationship that is fascinating to watch and taps into a lot of people’s feeling. By the end, it is tragic. It is desolate, which I think takes a lot of the audience by surprise. Ronald’s writing is so brutal and honest and poetic and human, and that’s what is so fantastic about these characters.
“He came along to the first read-through, and he then said ‘I will leave you now until you open’, and that was great. I did an Alan Ayckbourn a few years ago. It was Absent Friends, and he really likes that play of his own. He took a great interest in it. He came along a few times and gave us a few notes. It was useful.”
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