While seeing a live theatrical performance, a story that has been told thousands of times over again is what you see, but what is happening behind the stage? Are there squabbles, tensions, people on their last nerve just inside the curtain? Sometimes the fresh human story about the production you’re seeing is not on stage.
Sir (Albert Finney) is the aging leader of a traveling Shakespearean theater troupe during WWII. Norman (Tom Courtenay) is his dresser. While Sir is the face on stage and hold the ultimate power within the troupe (proven when he simply commands a train to stop), it is Norman who enables him. Sir is at the center of Norman’s universe and he has sacrificed his better years to getting Sir ready for the stage. But the stage is what creates Sir’s massive ego and he takes Norman for granted.
Hours before a performance of King Lear, Sir has a raging, ranting drunken fit in a marketplace. Norman takes him backstage to his dressing room to nurse Sir back to health where he sings while making tea, gives him pep talks, brandy and makes sure no one sees Sir until he’s fully recovered and in makeup. The energy Norman pours into Sir is astounding; while Sir is a half conscious mass man way past his prime, Norman is running around backstage reassuring the rest of the troupe that the show will go on. If Norman was any less attentive to Sir, there’s no way he could have gone on that night.
These scenes with Norman preparing Sir are also wildly hilarious at times. I had to pause the film to stop laughing after Norman finds Sir putting on the wrong makeup for the night. When Sir is trying to remember the first line of the play, he starts reciting lines from all different plays. And the way Norman deals with all this is like he’s helping a toddler who is on the verge of a huge mess. His character is so exuberant and lively that he is just funny to watch. I mean that in the dearest of ways, Sir is only lit up on stage, but Norman is on all the time.
The tensions on whether the show will go on are not just within Sir and Norman, but all around the theater. It is WWII and just before the curtain is to rise, the air raid sirens start to howl. Earlier in the film, there was a theater reduced to rubble. We can only wonder if all Norman’s work to get Sir ready will be blown to pieces in the blitz.
One of my favorite moments in the film is the storm scene in the play. While Sir is on stage, reciting his lines into the fury of the storm, backstage Norman and the troupe are creating the storm. They bang kettle drums, create rain and thunder with props but Sir wants more, louder. Soon they’re beating the hell out of those drums, creating so much noise no one would even notice a bomb hitting the theater. When the scene is over, the backstage hands are out of breath and seem to be riding the high of the storm, but Sir yells at them, “Where was the storm?!” Such a wonderful moment, it seems he’s never satisfied.
While on the surface of this film is the worry over the play and hilarious humor, the story is of a simple human relationship. Norman believes he is the center of the troupe, always making sure Sir is ready and pouring his whole self into his work, but in the end Sir cannot be bothered by Norman’s little cry for gratitude. It’s an amazing moment to see someone realize how little they are appreciated and in that final scene Tom Courtenay is simply astounding, in my mind, worth of Best Actor.
I promise I haven’t given too much away. This is one of those films I could tell you all about, but the experience of seeing it is what really matters. If you love theater, Shakespeare or not I completely recommend The Dresser. By huge margins, I have picked this film as Best Picture for 1983. Huge margins.
“227 Lears… and I can’t remember the first line.”