Reviews: The Dresser – Everyman Palace, Cork
There are two enormous and intertwined conflicts in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser . The second World War is the almost overwhelming background to the battle being waged within and about Sir, an ageing actor- manager discovering that, while the show must go on, he doesn’t understand any longer why he has to be the one to keep it going. Or so he says, and perhaps so he believes.Máirin Prendergast’s direction for Skylight Productions strongly establishes the play’s context, like a globe in which the two chief characters, Sir, and his dresser, Norman, are captured in a blizzard of air raids.
They are preparing for a performance of King Lear by Sir’s tired and understaffed company on a provincial tour, with England itself storm-beaten, anguished, frightened and confused. This is exactly how Sir feels, and it is from a state of explosive despair that Norman must rescue him, making sure he is costumed for the right play and reminding him, once again, of his opening phrases.
The fact that these two leading roles have all the best lines doesn’t diminish the quality of the playing from the rest of a very competent cast, not least Martina Carroll as Her Ladyship (these are spurious titles, achieved through the nobility of make-believe). But the fact that these two parts interlock as the fulcrum of the play, carrying its defiant message of Lear-like constancy and bewilderment, brings them, and all about them, into the brightest spotlight.
Both Conor Dwane as Norman and Alf McCarthy as Sir sink their teeth into Harwood’s writing. This is more subtle than perhaps either man has time to convey, and Dwane especially is hampered by an accent which he sustains gallantly even when the vocal pitch, set at crescendo, makes it impenetrable. As Sir, McCarthy uses a fuller tonal range, so that his swoops from physical and mental agony to the soaring elation of performance are entirely plausible.
Although he has to struggle with a costume which, while consistent with the period, makes him look like a demented Father Christmas, both he and Dwane convey the equivocal nature of their relationship and the tension of a dressing room besieged by uncertainty and terror.
With such a terrific writer as Harwood, there are scenes within scenes and meanings beyond the obvious. While these are all succinctly realised by a clear- speaking and disciplined cast, a little more attention to production details would have brought this credo to the transformational power of the theatre close to perfection. MARY LELAND