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A Scintillating 'Dresser'

By Matt Wolf International Herald Tribune, March 16, 2005

LONDON at the moment seems entranced by plays about the goings-on backstage. There's the revival of David Mamet's "A Life in the Theater" and the new musical, "Acorn Antiques," whose entire first act consists of a particularly pretentious director's preparations for a show-within-a-show. To the list, which includes the Mel Brooks musical "The Producers," about deliberately producing a Broadway flop, we can now add the revival of Ronald Harwood's 1980 play "The Dresser," at the Duke of York's.

Like the Mamet a few streets away, this script a quarter-century after its premiere hasn't weathered very well. But very much unlike the Mamet, "The Dresser" is scintillatingly acted, with a career-transforming performance by Nicholas Lyndhurst as its supreme achievement. Lyndhurst made his reputation in the popular British sitcom "Only Fools and Horses," and he has braved the West End before, notably as the nebbish at the lowbrow heart of Larry Shue's play, "The Foreigner."

As Norman in "The Dresser," Lyndhurst faces not only his most challenging assignment to date but has to confront some formidable memories - namely, the specter of Tom Courtenay, who played the role to great acclaim in London and on Broadway and won an Oscar nomination for the movie version, in 1983.

It helps that Lyndhurst is an entirely different physical specimen from Courtenay, being both quite a bit taller and possessed of an eternally hangdog countenance. His sad-eyed demeanor - he suggests a human basset hound - turns out to be perfect for the "dresser" of the title, the loyal if long-suffering assistant to the florid Shakespearean actor, known only as Sir (played by Julian Glover), on whom Norman has doted for 16 years. Sir, in turn, is leading a provincial tour of Britain in what may well be his last performance as King Lear, while the winds of World War II are rattling - Lear-like - beyond the theater's doors.

Harwood has a dramatist's predictable fun with the vagaries of life in the wings, not least the appetites of a thespian whose gathering forgetfulness hasn't deprived Sir of his capacity for recognizing a comely young colleague, the ingénue Irene (Anna Lauren), when he sees one. And Norman has some competition for Sir's devotion from the even longer-suffering stage manager, Madge, whom Liza Sadovy plays, beautifully, as one of those people who no longer much likes a job at which she is nonetheless very good.

But for all the capable preening of Glover in the hammier of the two lead roles (Albert Finney played Sir on screen), Peter Hall's production really belongs to Lyndhurst, who strikes notes of rancor and real fury that I don't remember from Courtenay.

Nipping away quietly at the booze when his boss isn't looking, this Norman moves beyond a baleful feyness to suggest the indignity of a life that has been lived entirely on the sidelines - a point reinforced by Paul Pyant's lighting, which at one point juxtaposes Sir in the vainglorious spotlight with Norman, the eternal sidekick in the shadows nearby.

The play itself really isn't much more than the sum of its players, and one gets more than a little tired of Harwood having to cling rather desperately to the plight of Shakespeare's mad monarch to up the thematic ante on his own conceit.

And for all that Lyndhurst's performance avoids ready-made camp, the same can't always be said of the writing, which trafficks extensively in the sort of bitchiness that theater people find hilarious (while others often do not). At the same time, the show isn't called "The Dresser" by accident, which is where Norman, presumably, comes into his own.

Although Harwood is anatomizing a perennial also-ran in Norman, he grants his leading actor the knockout emotional blows in a play that finally allows this would-be Fool to Sir's Lear to come poignantly, and fully, into his own.

"The Dresser" to contemporary eyes looks remarkably old-fashioned, so it's interesting to find a Symbolist classic, in Strindberg's "A Dream Play," now at the National's Cottesloe auditorium, that seems the latest word in avant-garde. That discovery has less to do with the new version of the play by the English writer Caryl Churchill, a modern-day maverick much as Strindberg was a century ago, and more to do with an amazing production from the director Katie Mitchell, whose imagination, on this evidence, clearly knows no bounds.

Nor, purists will claim, does Mitchell's lack of textual scrupulousness: The staging on triumphant view at the National has significantly dispensed with and/or modified much of Churchill's text, which has itself significantly updated (and cut) chunks of Strindberg's 1901 Swedish original. No matter. Only pedants will sit out the evening pondering shifts in emphasis when Mitchell is so true to the liberating spirit of the piece. (And no wonder she gives herself and the cast a program credit for "additional material.")

"A Dream Play" is probably better experienced than it is described, especially since its nonlinear narrative gives the evening the fractured, intoxicating spirit of - aptly enough - a dream. Gone is the emphasis on human suffering of the original, replaced here by a largely choreographed piece about the collapsibility of time and the precariousness of desire.

The central character is no longer a girl descended from heaven to see how people live but Alfred (Angus Wright), an office worker surrounded by angels, various ex-wives and an ailing mother. But even that is to make "A Dream Play" sound more soap operatic and literal-minded than it for a minute is. The fact is, those up for the adventure will have a wild ride. And if not? Well, like most dreams, the play is short.