Damn you, Reece Shearsmith, you moistened my eyes again.
I enjoy coincidence. There is a little part of me that might delight in being befuddled by patterns of synchronicity, but I presume the startling moments of coincidence are just reminders of how much of the world our senses miss and how fast our pattern seeking brain makes shapes when coincidence seems to occur.
On the way to see Reece Shearsmith in The Dresser, I noticed the blue plaque for Robert Aickman on a house near Gower Street. Aickman is a favourite author of Reece. He wrote an introduction for one of the recently republished anthologies. He is an author who places his protagonists in the most peculiar situations. They usually survive, but they will be changed and haunted.
I am fond of The Dresser for many reasons. The film is funny and heartbreaking and has two of Britain’s greatest actors who rose out of the kitchen sink, Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney.
It was also the last film that I watched with my mother that she really seemed to enjoy.
I had never seen it on stage before, after today’s performance, I may never see it again. The two leads are so remarkably good, I am not sure it would be worth seeing anyone else in these roles.
Both Reece Shearsmith as Norman and Ken Stott as Sir are such full creations, parts totally inhabited.
Shearsmith starts the play with a magnetic, frenetic camp energy. He reminded me of a lecture by Texan philosophy lecturer, Rick Roderick, who talked of Marcuse. There is something that reduces fear of philosophy when it is explained in a Texan drawl. He explained that Marcuse believed we “descended into busyness” to avoid living our lives, by creating continual tasks we can avoid looking life in the eye. Norman’s busyness helps bolster his purpose. His life is defined by being the servant to his master. As the Texan philosopher also said, “a slave’s life has meaning, it may be a terrible life, but it has meaning.”
When Sir enters we already know he is near breaking point and sometimes beyond it. He has been stripping and reciting Lear in the latest town he has brought Shakespeare to. The illusion of chutzpah disintegrates as he collapses into sobs. He is drained and demented and shackled to a company of actors who, due to the best being called to war, are equivalent to a home guard division of the RSC.
The play is about shattered dreams, love unrequited and frayed dependency.
Stott’s portrayal of the last gasps of a broken man had more power than any final scene of Lear. Is it more tragic to be a great man fallen, or man desperate for greatness, who occasionally deluded himself enough to believe in his greatness, but finally falls in a provincial theatre dressing room, with one bitten biscuit in the tin?
Shearsmith finds every laugh there is to be had in the script and every moment of melancholy. In the final scene, he expertly draws out every emotion when all meaning is lost, when the abyss is no longer escapable.
Unlike Inside No. 9’s 12 Days of Christine, I managed to keep some control of my emotions, but the moment the stage darkened and the applause began, I thoughtlessly leapt to my feet to give a standing ovation. It was a matinee, and I know this is not the done thing at a matinee, but my legs gave me no choice. I was relieved that others stood too, but had they not, let me be the fool that was the only one to stand, I can bear the shame when something is as good as this.
This is almost a two actor piece, but the supporting cast all play their roles so well you would happily know more about the lives of every character. Selina Cadell is particularly brilliant in the small, but vital part of another person for whom the theatre has not ultimately given her happiness, and yet has somehow fulfilled her.
I have been a cynic about theatre in the past -“hey, they’ve invented cinema now, granddad, why do you need people pretending and projecting in old Edwardian buildings”, this year in theatre has certainly made a fool of me.
The Dresser is at The Duke of York’s Theatre in London until mid-January, then a two week run in Chichester.
Reece Shearsmith was the guest of Series 2, episode 4 of Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles. You can find that, and other guests like Alan Moore, Isy Suttie, Chris Hadfield and many more HERE