In a production of King Lear, the lead actor is bordering on insanity as age and work take their toll. Simply referred to as Sir (and played by Anthony Hopkins), his long-term dresser, Norman (Ian McKellen), waits hand and foot on him, the only reward often being a sharp tongue and a look of disinterest. Since I know nothing about King Lear, apparently their relationship is similar to Shakespeare’s story of Lear and the Fool in the play.
Taking place during the London World War II blitz, the theatre has a full house but the show must go on despite the obvious interruptions. Alas, Sir is not a well man and, quite frankly, he’s slowly losing his marbles, not that he’d admit to it.
What made The Dresser a delight is not only a great ensemble cast, but also that the two leads are consumate professionals at the top of their game. Ian McKellen – showing perfect hushed disdain for Sir, despite relying on him for a career – is 76 while Anthony Hopkins – wonderful as the belligerent Sir – is even older at 78, yet both have more energy, individually, than a melee of 20-year-olds combined.
The dialogue was also a treat. Dismissing his health diagnosis – since in another production, he went on stage with double pneumonia when he was in The Corsican Brothers – Sir shouts: “When the doctor tells you (that) you need rest, that means they don’t know what’s wrong with you!”
And of the bombing, he moans: “Herr Hitler’s made it very difficult for production companies”, since people are often otherwise engaged rather than choosing to attend the theatre during World War II.
Various other actors in the play come into Sir’s dressing room as he prepares for that night’s performance, not least his wife, played by Emily Watson, who wants him to retire otherwise he’ll kill himself on the job if he keeps continuing, and it’s driving her mad. There’s also the young Irene (the stunning Vanessa Kirby) who’s captivated by the overly-demanding Sir. She’s completely besotted with him, comes into his room and he masterfully tells her to lock the door and then come nearer to him…
Once outside the room, she tells Norman “He cradled me in his arms and I know it was youth and newness he was after” – very much like Hopkins’ character in Freejack. You’ve all seen Freejack I take it, yes? I know it’s not quite Shakespeare, but if you haven’t seen that early ’90s action movie, then you’re missing out!
Overall, this was a joy to watch, even if it did go on a bit longer than it needed to. I’m now curious to check out the 1983 movie version, which starred Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay as Sir and Norman, respectively.
Oh, and at one point Sir quotes Macbeth in error, resulting in the necessity of going through the ritual of exiting his dresser, turning round three times, knocking (to the attention of no-one) and entering again and swearing (“Pisspots!”)
And that word wasn’t half as strong as the one I thought when, despite the programme segueing into the closing credits, the utter fuckwits at Ericsson TV Media (formerly Red Bee Media) STILL saw fit to babble all over the end of this production about nothing of importance! Thankfully, the fuckwits have fucked off for the iPlayer screening linked below, but with no Blu-ray or DVD release available, it’s a shame my HD recording is tainted, as it was otherwise perfectly fine.
There may be a Sir, but there is no God.
The Dresser can be watched on the BBC iPlayer until November 30th, and click on the top image for the full-size version.
Director: Richard Eyre
Producer: Suzan Harrison
Screenplay: Ronald Harwood (based on his play)
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Sir: Anthony Hopkins
Norman: Ian McKellen
Her Ladyship: Emily Watson
Madge: Sarah Lancashire
Irene: Vanessa Kirby
Thornton: Edward Fox
Oxenby/Edmund: Tom Brooke
Gloucester: John Ashton
Kent: Ian Conningham
Goneril: Annalisa Rossi
Regan: Helen Bradbury
Cornwall: Carl Sanderson
Albany: Matthew Cottle
Gentleman: Martin Chamberlain
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.