Interview with Harriet Thorpe and Selina Cadell, stars of The Dresser

Sir Ronald Harwood's award-nominated 1980 play The Dresser is a perfect blend of well-written and relatable characters set within a deeply theatrical and potentially hilarious setting. Having been seen previously in the West End and on Broadway, new audiences were introduced to the character of Sir and his faithful dresser Norman thanks to a recent BBC adaptation that starred Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen.

Harwood's bitter-sweet drama returns to the West End later this month following a brief tour and brings together some of the finest British acting talent with the master comedic director Sean Foley. Whilst the roles of Sir and Norman, brought to life in this production by Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith are likely to be the most fondly remembered, the female characters of Her Ladyship and stage manager Madge offer two quite different but complimentary relationships that help bring the play to life.

Speaking to Harriet Thrope and Selina Cadell, who play Her Ladyship and Madge respectively backstage at the Richmond Theatre before a performance both agree that above all whilst this is a brand new production, the play is really the thing.

“The play is the most brilliant thing regardless, that's the bottom line” states Thorpe, “It's the 'finessing' of what we do and the joy that we have in creating and honouring these characters which are so beautifully written, that's the beauty of it. They're so funny, they're so painful, their lives are so empty and their love for Sir is so great and he is careless about all of them. That's both the pain of it and the wit of it.”

Harriet Thorpe and Ken Stott in The Dresser

Whilst the play ultimately focuses on the relationship between Sir, an aged Shakespearean actor-manager and his quirky dresser Norman, Harwood skilfully develops the female characters alongside to compound the overall feeling and pathos within the drama.

“It doesn't strive to be different because it's such a marvelous piece of well made theatre” echoes Selina. “There's quite a concept around doing a classic and doing it differently, we're doing this as a classic and I think it works. I would say it's about the people who stand and serve, and it's a play about youth and age and that's about men and women.”

Set during the Second World War amongst the ageing repertory theatre system which would see companies tour the provinces with productions presented in rep, I wondered how both actresses had prepared and researched for their roles.

“I'm not one of those actresses who does their research other than the time and the style and when the play was written” answers Selina. “I think it's important to recognise what the stage management at that time was, at those days it was about a couple of cans and a couple of buttons. It's a proper good old play, you don't really need to work out what you had for breakfast the day before. I'm not a fan of that. It's very well written, if it wasn't well written I'd have to put in the padding but there's no padding required. It's a good three course meal already.”

Thrope's personal experiences and fascination with the era have helped her capture the style and grace of Her Ladyship, which is extremely specific to a particular style of acting.

“I have always watched 1930s/40s films, I adore that era” she explains. “My father was an actor, he worked in London during the Blitz in 'Where the Rainbow Ends' with Italia Conti. This is exactly the era that we're playing. Bombs are going off around us as we're trying to perform King Lear. Having heard my father's stories, having watched that era of actresses and how they performed, the style of the time, I adore it so much. There was an amazing truth – people feel they were very clipped but they have these burning emotions so it's the marriage of the fun and the pain of the play and honouring that and knowing that era so well.”

Selina Cadell in The Dresser

With any play about the theatre or the industry itself there comes with it a risk of being slightly too knowing and in some cases overly self-referential. I wonder how as a company their collective experiences within the industry have helped shape the world of the play without falling into parody or pastiche.

“I think it transcends into so many different worlds, it's not just a play about the theatre at all” Selina responds. “I don't think the trappings of the theatre get in the way, instead they place it in a solid context. I think this play safely gives you the pastiche for free.”

“For all of us the joy that the company has, we've all known a Sir or Her Ladyship” Harriet smiles. “We've all been young people in companies at one point, heaving bits of furniture around and being grateful. The identification for all of us is endless and utterly a joy. We have shrieked and laughed so much, because we've all met everybody in this play. It's not too knowing or grandiose because Ronnie Harwood's writing has such heart and understands despair.”

“No one is pretending for a moment that actors think they're performing brain surgery at Great Ormond Street – we know we don't do that – but the idea that we're just superficial 'luvvies' is not right. To be funny you have to understand pain. That's what humour is, pain. We're being bombed, Sir is losing his mind and we've all had opportunities to do something else, yet we never did. Here we are.”

As performers with such distinguished and eclectic careers, I'm particularly interested to hear about what initially attracted both Harriet and Selina to the play, especially when both have experience working in both television and film.

“I love it because I think that's where we live and breath best” answers Harriet. “It's the only time actors are really in control – if I turn my head I know I'm doing that, I'm not on the cutting room floor somewhere. To sit here and put on make up and hear the audience is a lovely thing. We go on a journey that is present – it's not something we do then in a distant time some people see it. We share this moment for those two hours and we all do that journey together. You can't do that anywhere else.”

Harriet Thorpe in The Dresser

For Selina, the role of Madge is a rare opportunity for an actress of her age.

“I was drawn to it because the part is magnificent” she states. “I remember seeing it years ago and there aren't really many really good parts for people of my age around. I'm always attracted to people who keep their heads below the parapet. I think that's very interesting.”

"I think this generation isn't as used to having such a well structured play" she continues. "It didn't need much work in terms of work, it stands alone. Your work is to really understand it and what the position is that this man is going through, how he is the bee that around all these people flutter. It really is all on the page, you don't need to add anything.”

Whilst younger audience may not necessarily be used to such a traditional 'well made play', the reception that The Dresser has been getting during its brief tour seems exceptional. Seeing the play with an attentive and expressive Richmond audience, the charm of the piece and indeed Harwood's writing is certainly a pleasure to rediscover.

“They love it!” says Harriet. “Our experience is that it is immediate. They get it. Reece and Ken are extraordinary – you laugh and you cry, what more do you want? It's a contemporary classic. It's not just about actors it's about human nature, failing and trying to hold on and to honour each other. I think that's human nature and because we live out those desires and longings, that the resonance that people will have. The fact that people don't get what they want is the beauty and the pain of it.”

Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott in The Dresser

Selina echoes Harriet's comments on the play transcending the world of theatre and audiences finding within it a touch of simple and base human instinct, ideas which make The Dresser an extraordinary play.

“You can expect a wonderful evening with a play that has a huge beating heart at the centre of it in a place that is slightly unexpected and in a situation that many people won't recognise”, she explains. “There's a great reveal of emotion that will take you by surprise. Reece is a master clown and Ken is a fabulous actor so the two of them working together is a wonderful thing. It's a great piece of theatre, it really takes you into its world and offers you an insight into something which is perhaps quite unusual and unexpected, and suddenly you find yourself completely drawn in as a human.”

The Dresser runs at the Duke of York's Theatre from 5 October to 14 January 2017.


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