Ronald Harwood's masterpiece
Ken Stott finds echoes of Arthur Miller in the writing of Ronald Harwood whose play The Dresser he is reviving (Brighton Theatre Royal, Sept 20'“24).
First performed in 1980 in the West End and on Broadway, the play explores the relationship between an ageing actor-manager and his long-suffering dresser Norman as they struggle to keep the show on the road against the backdrop of a down-at-heel regional theatre in wartime.
For Ken, it’s his first time in a Harwood – and he is impressed: “He is in the school of the great playwrights. The pinnacle is really Arthur Miller – because of what Miller did, because of that most fantastic ability to make you feel. The language is very urbane, and you are lulled into thinking that it is all very simple, that it is a simple subject. But then you realise that it isn’t simple at all. You feel that you have just been sucked into it. And I think Harwood has that quality. It seems very easy stuff, but it is certainly not easy at all... but it is actually very easy on the ear.
“We met Sir Ronald and he just said ‘Get on with it and I will see you at the Duke of York’s.’ He came to the read-through, but he was happy just to let us get on with it.”
Ken also met Miller when he did a play of his at the National: “He came to the last rehearsals, and it was a joy to have him there, to be honest. He was a brilliant and wonderful man. The extraordinary thing about Miller was that he was the major left-wing intellectual in America at the time, and he was never forgiven for marrying the American idol Marilyn Monroe. But he was also the kind of man that could mend a fence and chat about Proust!”
And it is echoes of Miller he is finding now.
“This character is demanding a lot of emotional charge, like an athlete jumping from a standing start. You have to leap to it. There is no slow emotional run-up into the emotional state. It’s an emotional state and you suddenly have to get yourself into it.”
But he is a fascinating character: “What I am ambitious to show is that he is not shallow, that he is not all bluster, that he was facing a difficult time, that he was touring up and down the whole of Great Britain in war-time and playing these great characters like Lear and Richard III and Shylock and so on and yet he was also in charge of booking and getting people paid.”
To an extent, of course, it is a portrait of acting in a very different era: “There is a slow disappearance of actors who are bred in the theatre and have the attitude that physically there is nothing that will stop them from going on the stage. I have got a feeling that that is less and less the case. You have got young actors who are coming into the business now who would be well advised to go into the theatre but would rather sit at home and wait until a TV job comes along.”
The fact is, theatre is the best way to learn your craft, Ken says. It’s how he started – and how he intends to continue: “There was a time when I hardly did any theatre for ten years. One television series followed another, and it was all very successful, and I was very pleased. But looking back, I wonder why I didn’t do more theatre. I decided in the end I really would have to do more theatre for my peace of mind. With theatre, you have got that abject fear of being in front of an audience and that turns into having absolute control of an audience. You have to go from one extreme to the other. And you have to learn a healthy respect for the audience and a respect for other actors.”
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