To Sir With Love-Hate
The SRT spruces up The Dresser
By Richard Lord
Theatre people are nothing if not fixated on themselves. Small wonder then that a good many plays have been written about theatre people by other theatre people plays about backstage romances, off-stage antics, career tragedies and failures to face 'real life'. Some of these plays have even been good.
We can certainly count Ronald Harwood's The Dresser amongst that select group of really good plays about the theatre world. This is not simply because of Harwood's splendid use of language here, though lovers of good dialogue would find much to keep them happy here. (Some of the best gems are, admittedly, borrowed from Shakespeare and other masters, though most of it is original.) What really sets this play apart is that Harwood chose to focus on a tight theatrical relationship that was long overlooked, if not intentionally ignored: that of the dresser and the star he or she slavishly attends to.
Such a relationship belongs mainly to the past. In this case, the kind of star in focus is also a relic of the past, one of a breed that had disappeared even long before Harwood penned this play: the actor-manager who ran who ran his/her own troupe like an occasionally benign despot, calling all the shots, focusing every show around his or her (and in the those days, mainly his) august presence.
Harwood, who had himself spent almost five years as dresser to the legendary actor-manager Donald Wolfit, managed to capture the milieu convincingly. Further, he added an extra layer of pathos to the piece by setting it during the early days of World War II, with Britain under the Blitz, where even performances in the provinces were fraught with the dangers of being stopped by Luftwaffe bombs.
This is a world where the show must go on, even if German bombs are about to drop on the theatre. A world where insiders, the theatre folk, speak of those outside the theatre as 'civilians', usually to bemoan their ignorance. (Such as asking why the people in these touring troupes put up with all these hardships.)
And why did they put up with it? As the actor-manager in The Dresser declares, "Our civilisation is under threat from the forces of darkness, and we, humble actors, do all in our power to fight as soldiers on the side of right in the great battle." In other words, many of these small companies performing Shakespeare in the provinces saw the Bard as an answer to the Blitz, a rage against Nazi Germany's attempts to put out the lights of Western civilisation. Morally, it was perhaps the finest hour of British touring theatre companies.
Harwood's dresser, Norman (whom Harwood insists was not at all autobiographical, but a composite of four or five dressers he had known during his own days backstage) is a dedicated dogsbody whose main duties go beyond the mere physical demands of the job. The most important tasks hoisted upon Norman are to tend to the psychological and emotional needs of his master, here simply dubbed 'Sir'. As Norman says, Sir's present state is "tottering between confusion and chaos". Norman job is to keep him tottering in a forward direction.
Harwood gives us the pair at the burnt-out ends of smoky days in the career of Sir, who once apparently did shine with sparkling talent and undiluted charm. By the time we meet him here, Sir is more or less living off the ever dimmer glow of his reputation. His talent sparkles less and less frequently, and his charm is diluted by a mix of unpleasant elements, most of them of his own making. His touring troupe is now reduced to (as he himself gamely puts it) "old men, cripples and nancy-boys".
The assumption is that this paltry make-up of his cast is only partially attributable to wartime manpower shortages; anyone with real talent would probably shun this man and his troupe. Now the only ones left around him other than this motley crew of demi-talents and disasters are those who were with him when he was still an imposing figure and remain attached through abiding love and/or affection. These latter include Madge, the long-time stage manager; her Ladyship, his long-time near-wife and co-star; and Norman himself, who has put in 16 years of service.
The loyalties here are largely one-sided. Sir's attitude towards Norman, even after all these years, is encapsulated in this remark: "Don't overstep the mark, boy." (italics mine). This to a middle-aged man who is cultured enough to at one point casually spin off an analogy using Niobe's being turned into stone.
Harwood's play catches this troupe for one special evening in what seems like just another stop along another dreary tour. But as her Ladyship says in pleading for Sir to bring down the curtain on this once promising career of his, she has grown tired of cold trains and cold waiting rooms and cold hotels. However, Sir cannot give up this life, because there is nowhere else for him to go.
Except death, of course. The play does, in fact, end with Sir's death, a perfect actor's death, in the dressing room after a particularly trying performance of Lear. In fact, that death is too perfect, too convenient a way to end the tale. Harwood certainly lays the groundwork for the demise Sir had spent most of the day at a hospital and sneak out when he decided the young doctor ( a 'civilian', of course) did not understand that actors are not stopped by illness as mere mortals are. Plus, he has borne two Cordelias that day, one in the dressing room, one on the stage.
But I still find death too easy a way out of the complex web of relationships and dependencies that Harwood had constructed here. A more compelling end would have edged this play even closer to greatness, with which it occasionally flirts as it now stands. A perfect exit simply does not make for a perfect ending.
And we should not forget that this small-scale tragedy is filled with a good many comic moments. Some of them are too easy and predictable, playing on the stock figure of the absent-minded old thespian who cannot remember where he left his hat, not to mention his lines. Sure, Sir is well past his prime and not playing with anything near a full deck. For instance, after again reminding him that he is playing Lear this evening, Norman ducks out for a moment, then returns to find Sir at his make-up table putting on blackface, thinking he is doing Othello. Sure, it does merit a laugh, but not admiration for flawless wit.
But a lot of the jokes are delicious and flow naturally from character and situation. Prime example: a very nervous Norman is hauled before the house to announce that the air raid signal has been sounded. He tries to say that "Anyone who wants to leave can exit...", but filtered through his nervousness, it comes out as "Anyone who wants to live.." (The Norman in this production handled that moment brilliantly, by the way.)
In fact, the text is loaded with good one-liners. For example: "Memory's like a policeman never there when you need it." Or, when the troupe is afraid Sir may not be up to going on that evening for his 227th portrayal of King Lear: "A Lear with Lear? No-one will pay to see the crucifixion of the two thieves." And around that same time, one character says, "We just have to face the facts", prompting a defiant Norman to respond: "I've never done that in my life." This line is not only a joke; it catches the life Norman has devoted himself to, serving a man who was at the same time impossible and irresistible.
The Dresser is both a temptation and a danger for any ambitious theatre company. It is a play which is extremely hard to get right. However, when done right, a production of this play can yield terrific rewards.
Thankfully, the Singapore Rep version was done very right indeed, resulting in a bundle of terrific rewards for audiences and, I have no doubt, the SRT company itself.
The SRT Dresser was most ably helmed by Tracie Pang, who this year garnered a Life! Theatre Awards Best Director nomination for an original children's show she had done for the SRT's children's theatre group. With this Dresser, Pang clearly shows that she can handle even those notoriously problematical types, adult performers.
Director Pang, set designer Sebastian Zeng and lighting designer Yo Shao Ann combined to create a luscious palette of autumnal tones for this Dresser. Zeng's reconstruction of a 1940's provincial playhouse dressing room somehow managed to seem both authentic and personal. The sombre, earthy colours underscore the sense of the milieu the British provinces in a time of deprivation, rationing, and stiff-upper-lippedness in the face of aerial attacks and other wartime threats. Yo's lighting brought out these tones beautifully, adding their own softness or harshness as needed. The resulting mood was of nostalgia cut with wormwood.
One particularly effective bit here was the way the lighting occasionally took us into the 'corridor' outside the dressing room, brought about by the use of a scrim not noticeable until the lights went up. The first time this happened, we caught an exasperated Norman sneaking a snort from his bottle of brandy, a perfect time to reveal this trick.
The music was also effective, though in a more minor key. The pre-show and interval break featured popular songs from the Forties, all well chosen. (The show opened with the Glenn Miller Band signature tune "In The Mood", which would become the unofficial Allied anthem of defiance against Fascism, and closed with Vera Lynn's signature recording of "We'll Meet Again.") The opening announcement was very cleverly turned into part of an air raid warning. For instance, the audience was urged to shut off their mobile phones and other beeping devices as these could draw enemy bombs.
Tracie Pang's direction was clean, observant and precise. She proved herself just the kind of director Harwood's piece needs: her staging served the text, often unobtrusively but always sure-handed. Pang's stagecraft rarely drew attention to itself. For this reason, those few points at which we became aware of directorial inventiveness for instance, when we were allowed to peer in at both the dressing room and the corridor outside were all the more impressive for their infrequency.
Pang also saw that the characters were brought out vividly. (I am assuming this was strongly collaborative work between the director and the actors themselves.) The eponymous dresser was beautifully played by local TV favourite Adrian Pang, who also just happens to be the director's husband. It was a model of how the role can be done.
Pang achieved a fine balance here, neatly shaping all the difficult contours of the character. Norman is a man nearly choking on his own clenched emotion who realises that if Sir's life and work was not important, neither was his own life and work. He loves the old thespian the way any long-time mate would: despite all his serious flaws and foibles.
Pang, who is a past master at using his face to add value, displayed that skill beautifully here, almost never coming close to mugging (something he has to do a lot on local TV). Here he used that versatile face as the mirror of a tortured soul. For instance, one delicious moment in this production occurred as Pang's Norman, standing in the background, flashed a tidy look of resentment when Madge points out she has been working for Sir even longer than Norman has.
This Norman merely hinted at the character's homosexuality, which other performances have delivered in strong measures. I suspect that in the social climate of Britain in the Forties, most gays would have behaved pretty much like Pang's dresser, pressed discreetly against their closet doors.
Michael Corbridge was also stellar as Sir. Playing an actor who has lived most of his life 'over the top', Corbridge was able to pour more bluster into this role and display a lot more physicality than Pang could, but he did it in a most convincing way. Even more than Pang, Corbridge flirted with histrionics here and there, but always stayed just on the admirable side of that line. Indeed, his Sir was such a presence, Corbridge was able to turn around fully, completely upstaging himself, and still keep us engrossed.
Rather younger than Sir himself, Corbridge never gave us cause to doubt that this was a once successful performer at the end of his days, trying to scrape together whatever dignity and passion he can still muster and share it with the audiences who still come to see him.
Susan Tordoff was also quite commendable as her Ladyship.(We later come to learn that Sir is not really a Sir, that he is still waiting for his place on the Honours list and that her Ladyship is not only no Lady, but no wife either. It seems that Sir has been postponing a divorce from his actual spouse out of fear that a divorce would completely scuttle his chances at a title.)
Tordoff put together a winning portrait of a leading lady who is just past her prime in many ways, hanging on to the man she has devoted her life to, despite all his flaws. Tordoff never sunk to pathos, but fully commanded our sympathy from the sheer honesty of the performance.
One admirable feature of this production was that all the other, more minor roles were handled by strong performers who understood that while they were in minor roles, these were all key parts of the company's social mosaic.
Pam Oei, who has recently shown her talents as a young child-adolescent in Oi! Sleeping Beauty, a half-child nun in Doubt, and a cautionary tale of arrested development in the TV drama 9 Lives, here left no doubt as to how good she can be when she plays a fully mature adult. Her Madge was tough but sympathetic, a sad soul for whom disappointment had become standard fare. Oei hit every note correctly in delivering this difficult, touching character.
As Mr Oxenby, the resident trouble-maker in Sir's company, Ashraf Safdar provided further strong support. Ashraf produced a fine cameo portrait of that type who a decade later would become the Angry Young Men. This Oxenby seethed with resentment at what he feels is lack of due appreciation. Safdar's performance was not flawless, however: Oxenby's limp was not too convincing, but he did wield his cigarette well, like a ready weapon. Throughout the performance, we had the feeling with Safdar's Oxenby that here was an explosion waiting to go off at any time.
Also deserving of praise were Wong Ping Ping and Gerald Chew. Ms Wong was rather credible as Irene, the lady-in-waiting to become the next leading lady. In Wong's hands, we experienced Irene as a clever, conniving woman with a good sense of timing; she knew just what cards she held and how to play them. (Norman's put-down of this wannabe was one of the only parts of Adrian Pang's performance that I felt could have used a more intense note. Norman is being protective of both Sir and his own territory at that point, and Pang could have brought even more bile to the moment.)
Gerald Chew was pretty much pitch perfect as Geoffrey Thornton. Thornton is the complete opposite of Oxenby, a retreating has-been of a never-was who still maintains a touching measure of dignity and self-crafted grace despite all of life's discouragements. And this is exactly what Gerald Chew brought to the party.
Is there anything really negative to say about this production? Other than the few quibbles noted above, perhaps just that the programme was woefully written and edited. Oh yes, the wardrobe could also be faulted, slightly. For instance, Irene the wannabe leading lady wore a skirt which was too short for the early Forties. This gaffe is emphasised by the text wherein Sir wants to check how nice her legs are and asks her to pull up her skirt; here, it was already above her knees.
That sounds like nitpicking, I know; truth is, one must resort to nitpicking to turn up any negative points against this show. It was an utter triumph, one of the best I have seen the SRT mount and probably the best locally produced show I have managed to catch this year.
At the end of the show, alone with the dead man into whose career he has poured so much of his own life, Norman lays his head on Sir's lap and weeps. In this version, the lights slowly went down on this image, a kind of post-Modernist Pietá. The timing of the fade was something like perfect, creating a brilliant closing image. It was so fitting that in bringing us this fine play about the theatre, the SRT showed us right till the very end what sad beauty theatre can achieve.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 4 Jul 2006