Review: The Dresser, at the Oxford Playhouse until 29 January and then on tour until late February. Book here.
[Disclosure: The Oxford Playhouse provided me with free tickets for the purposes of this review as well as free drinks in the press room during interval.]
It feels like such a luxury to go to a play like The Dresser - a proper traditional piece of theatre where nothing has been compromised due to the pandemic. The play itself, written by multi-award winner Ronald Harwood, is a witty mirroring of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Set in a regional touring theatre company, the lead actor and manager, known as Sir, played by Matthew Kelly – is ageing, and dementia has set in. His loyal dresser – Norman, played by Julian Clary – does everything he can to make sure that Sir is fit to go on stage; the show must go on.
The staging of this show is extraordinary. The action takes place in two different locations – in Sir’s dressing room and back stage at a regional theatre. It’s such a wonderful experience to be sitting in the audience, watching the action back stage at another play – which you can hear progressing off stage.
Both the performance of King Lear, which you hear in snippets off stage, and Sir’s story, unfold in tandem. Both characters are cruel, ruthless, selfish and vain, and maltreat those who love them most. Dementia brings a new vulnerability to both Sir and King Lear. Matthew Kelly and Julian Clary are exceptional in their roles – utterly believable.
Watching this play reminded me of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – which weaves its action around Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If you enjoyed that, it’s likely that you will enjoy The Dresser too.
During the play, there are two major events – one-character reveals feelings and the other is a major spoiler which I won’t share with you. I found it slightly jarring that the realisation of these two events were passed over quite quickly. I took me a moment to understand what had happened because the dialogue just kept rolling on. I would have liked to experience a pause, a moment of respite – just to let the events sink in – before the dialogue continued.
One aspect of The Dresser that may become more problematic as time goes on is the story itself – it’s the story of an old, white, powerful man who has been selfish and ruthless, and has used up the youth and love of the people around him to his own ends. It’s a testament to the writing that we can sympathise with Sir at all. These stories of the dominant narrative have been told over and over again. The fact that they are told brilliantly means that our attention is yet again taken up with them.
The news has been littered with the selfish, amoral cruelty of individuals in this particularly, powerful demographic – in the entertainment industry and in politics. I had a slight feeling of exhaustion watching the same story playing out on stage that I have been reading about in the news for weeks, months, years. Everybody brings their own experience, gender politics and cultural context to each show – so my thoughts on this will be different to yours.
What is indisputable is that this is a wonderful piece of traditional theatre, beautifully produced and acted and will be enjoyed by many.
All photos provided by the Oxford Playhouse and taken by Alastair Muir