Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins excel in this feature-length adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s tragicomedy
The 1983 film of Ronald Harwood’s backstage play The Dresser starred Albert Finney as a domineering lead actor who called himself ‘Sir’ and Tom Courtenay as his simpering helpmeet Norman. Both of them were nominated for Oscars for their efforts, meaning that anyone choosing to reprise the roles has got big shoes to fill.
Lucky, then, that a new TV adaptation of The Dresser was able to call on Sirs Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins, names big enough for any shoe. It made for a singular piece of theatre, even though it was theatre on television – on the one hand we were watching The Dresser, a tragicomedy about a washed-out ‘Sir,’ being roused by his dresser for one last tilt at King Lear; and on the other we were basking in the glow of McKellen and Hopkins sharing a screen for the first time, even as they were playing two men in perilous decline.
Single plays on television are rare beasts and when they do crop up they tend to come with plenty of handwringing about how there aren’t enough of them. The Dresser brought with it arguments both for and against. It was probably too recondite for most: a single play set backstage during the performance of another play, revelling in the whole gamut of theatre lore and vernacular, will surely have been too stagey in every sense for many viewers looking forward to Gandalf versus Hannibal.
On the other hand director Richard Eyre made the most of what he had. TV is a more intimate medium than either film or theatre and much of this 90 minutes was spent close-up on the Sirs, staring at the sunken eyes and crevassed flesh of these two old men as they preened and raged. McKellen in particular has used his time on everything from Coronation St to Vicious to master the small screen much as he has mastered every other medium. His Norman started out as fool to Hopkins’ Lear, and ended up closer to a spitting Iago.
As for Hopkins, his character died in his dressing room backstage, and throughout The Dresser hummed with an undertone of regret at the death of his own theatre career in 1987, after playing Antony in Anthony and Celopatra in 1987. Some of the best parts of The Dresser were where we got to see Hopkins actually playing Lear again. (He last took the role in 1986 in David Hare’s production at the National.) Here he reminded us, ‘howl, howl, howl’-ing at Emily Watson as a dead Cordelia, that he could still be an eminent Shakespearean, had he chosen to be one.