The Version Interview... Ian McKellen on The Dresser.
One of the greatest portraits of life in the theatre, Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser has been adapted for television. The production brings Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins together on screen for the first time.
Reverting to Harwood’s original text, adapted for television and directed by Richard Eyre, the play tells the story of one fateful night in a small regional theatre during World War Two as a troupe of touring actors stage a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bombs are falling, the sirens are wailing, the curtain is up in an hour but the actor/manager Sir (Hopkins) who is playing Lear is nowhere to be seen. His dresser Norman (McKellen) must scramble to keep the production alive, but will Sir turn up in time and if he does, will he be able to perform that night?
The Dresser is a wickedly funny and deeply moving story of friendship and loyalty as Sir reflects on his lifelong accomplishments and seeks to reconcile his turbulent friendships with those in his employ before the final curtain.
Ian McKellen tells us more...
What made you agree to this project?
I'd seen the original production on stage when it reached London from Manchester and the subject of the film I had enjoyed. I'd been asked to play Sir in other productions numerous times, and thought well that play's been done really and successfully and it doesn't need doing again. Although Ronnie Harwood tells me that there hasn't been a week since it was written when it hasn't been on some stage somewhere in the world. The offer to play Norman, the dresser, was preceded by the suggestion that I should work with Anthony Hopkins for the first time and I think whatever the project had been, I would have been inclined to say yes for that reason.
It's the most beautifully constructed play. It appeals to actors because it's about our lives. It's a slight exaggeration but not much. I mean the room I'm sitting in now is not a room of course it's a set in a studio but I don't know if you can see the WC behind me, that was my suggestion because I remember going to a theatre in my home town in Bolton in Lancashire, North of England to a variety theatre where there where different turns each week and in the corner of the number one dressing room there was a lavatory. So I liked that, it feels like home. It's been a job without compare.
Tell us about the role of the dresser?
The best dressers accommodate you and know as Norman does, when to speak and when not to. If you're getting ready, that's a very personal individual thing, and even though the dresser is there to accommodate you in every way possible, it is a little journey you're going on. He's not going to come on stage with you, but he's going to be the welcome when you come back and just getting that right is not easy. It’s like this; you say to your dresser one day, “oh I'd love an orange” and if he's good, ten minutes later, there'll be an orange on your plate. The next day he'll say “Do you want an orange?” and you'll say “yes” and he's got one already for you. Then without saying every day, there'll be an orange. One day you'll go in and you'll think, “I'd kill for a pear,” and you'd say “Jimmy have you got a pear?” and without you noticing there's a fruit bowl arrived with pears and apples and bananas just in case one day you didn't want the orange. Well you can't beat that for service can you?!
Who is Norman and what's going on in his life?
Very cunningly Ronald Harwood reveals his characters in what they say and what they remember. Norman is given plenty of opportunity to talk about his past. His past seems to have involved some sort of illness, mental illness and he was put away somewhere undefined, away from everything and his escape was to the theatre. He is now, perhaps because of his illness, not working any more as an actor but as a dresser. It means he's very sympathetic to the problems of being an actor, even a leading actor like Sir. I don't find much difficulty in landing very firmly in a world that I believe in.
Norman is an amalgamation, I see in him, of some dressers that I've had and I've introduced some characteristics even of my current dresser, John, he doesn't know I've picked up one of his little habits which was to tap me rather reassuringly when he's finished just getting me ready for camera. He gives me a little tap of approval, job well done, which infuriates the hell out of me. But I, [laughs] I do it to Tony Hopkins, that's my revenge!
What happens during the night of the play?
Sir has had some sort of a collapse, literally in a public place so his vulnerability shows through and people are embarrassed by his behaviour. The dresser chances on him in the square and takes him to the hospital thinking he needs help. With the help, or lack of it from other people around, like the stage manager and Her Ladyship, the leading lady of the company, Norman manages to get Sir back onto some sort of track and pushes him along it until he's tipped out onto the stage.
How have you and Anthony come from two completely different viewpoints to meet in the middle in what seems to be one of the most enjoyable projects you've both had?
I think Tony's enjoyed it because he's come home. He's pretty adamant about not doing live performance any more. He is fighting fit and could easily do eight performances a week on stage. His voice is in fine full throated quality. The theatre means a great deal to him of course, it's where he began, it's where he had his early, huge successes and he's denied himself and the rest of us the chance of going on seeing him be as brilliant as he was in Pravda and King Lear and Antony [and Cleopatra] and other parts that I saw him do in the early days.
What we do share, is that work seems to take up the same amount of his energy and passion as it does in my life for me. We both have other things, relationships and so on, which are very important but I don't think Anthony could imagine himself not acting, and that's true of me. It's how I define myself and I think he does too. Although of course he's an amateur painter and composer, traveller and story teller, raconteur. He could go out on the stage and just tell stories.
The performance of King Lear, of course is crucial in this story.
In the tradition of classical acting in the United Kingdom, if you live long enough, King Lear is almost inevitable as Hamlet is at the beginning of your career. I think the beauty about King Lear is that anyone who has been around old people, or is beginning to feel old themselves, whether that's a positive feeling or negative, can connect and engage with King Lear because it's a study in old age. But a particular old man and, in defining that particularity, so one Lear will be different from another.
How is it working with Richard Eyre?
He's on our side, he's not a tyrant shouting out the orders, he's a friend guiding you through - that's his main quality. I've enjoyed working with him on quite a few plays. He's an intellectual, he can talk about what a play means as well as how it works and a screen play too. So in total confidence I daily say to Richard “what do you think of this?” and if he smiles and says “yes,” I'm gratified to have his approval, and if he smiles and says “no” I think well god I made a lucky escape there. Richard will guide you through.
You and Anthony seem to enjoy carrying on the tradition of re-telling stories…
Tony has this remarkable memory for detail and exactitude and will tell you as story that you would swear he had been telling for thirty years but he had not, he has just remembered something, he's told you it. Often about his career and a career in the theatre when he sat at the feet as I did of Lawrence Olivier and Ralph Richardson and Alan Badel and John Gielgud and women too, Sybil Thorndike and Celia Johnson, Peggy Ashcroft.
What is it about The Dresser that continues to be relevant?
The dialogue is so accurate and believable and varied and unpretentious in that it sounds like real people. Under the utmost pressure so Richard Eyre calls it a thriller, it's a story of bravery and of honour. It’s a story dealing with the best side of human nature even if people are not behaving very well they have their reasons. You don't know what's going to happen next or what's going to be said next, or who's going to upset who. It is the back stage story.
The Dresser is on BBC Two this November.