Today is St. Stephen’s Day in Western Christianity and the 416th anniversary of the first performance of King Lear by William Shakespeare. This seems like a good day to review The Dresser, a made-for-TV film about the backstage happenings during a touring performance of King Lear.
I’m surely not the only person to have felt special connections to Shakespeare’s plays at different points in my life. Romeo and Juliet taught me not to be stupid about love when I was young. Macbeth taught me not to be stupid about ambition when I was an adult. As I age, King Lear teaches me not to be stupid about the burdens that I place on the younger people in my life.
The presence of a King Lear production is why I wanted to see The Dresser.
The Dresser was originally a play, first performed in the West End of London in 1980 and on Broadway in 1982. In this 2015 TV film version, Ian McKellen plays the dresser, Norman, and Anthony Hopkins is the Shakespearean actor that he dresses and caters to before, during, and after each performance. The Anthony Hopkins character is known only as “Sir.” They’re in a touring company that travels around Great Britain and performs a different play each night. It’s World War II, so the company has trouble casting younger male roles since most of the young men are off to war.
On the day of the King Lear performance, Sir went missing in a mental health episode brought on by an air raid or by old age, or both. He ends up hospitalized and it’s unclear whether the show will go on. The woman in his life, known only as “Your Ladyship,” and played by Emily Watson wants Sir to rest, since that’s clearly what he needs. Norman is convinced that Sir can go on, that he just needs a little support and encouragement.
The main reason to watch this film is to see Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen perform together. The story and their interactions make this film a tribute to theater, to actors, and to the people behind the stage who make the magic happen.
Emily Watson holds her own as Your Ladyship, the long-suffering companion to Sir. Vanessa Kirby who I know best as Princess Margaret in The Crown, has a small role in this film as a young woman who presents herself as an ingenue.
Have you seen this film? What did you think?
I’ll share this post with British Isles Friday this week.