Theatre in Film: The Dresser (1983)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

August 19, 2016

Have a love affair with theatre and film? Me too! It’s an ongoing relationship that’s a thrill to have, and Performer Stuff’s Theatre in Film series celebrates the great films that effectively depict a life in the theatre. Part III in our ongoing tribute to theatre-centric cinema continues with the captivating 1983 drama, The Dresser.

The Dresser (1983)

Director: Peter Yates
Starring: Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Eileen Atkins, Edward Fox, and Zena Walker

What happens:

Sir (Albert Finney), an aging and senile Shakespearean actor, is on tour with his acting company as they traverse England, performing at regional theatres during the Second World War. Sir is the lead actor and manager of his Shakespearean acting troupe, and Norman (Tom Courtenay), his devoted dresser who, for all his service, might as well be Sir’s servant. After the troupe arrives in Bradford, where they will play King Lear that night, Sir has a mental breakdown in the middle of a public square. Norman ushers Sir to the hospital and proceeds to the theatre thereafter…only to see Sir in the dressing room. “I discharged myself,” Sir says.

Over the course of the night, Sir displays a wide array of emotions, causing extreme anxiety in the entire troupe, not to mention Norman who drinks occasionally from a small brandy bottle in order to calm himself. Sir barely makes his first entrance as Lear in front of a crowd of hundreds and nearly forgets his lines. Norman, struggling with Sir’s mistreatment of him, still tends to Sir’s every need until after the performance when, lying on the couch in his dressing room, Sir dies in front of Norman. Norman, distraught at the death of his friend and angered that Sir never thanked him for his services, delivers a sorrowful and apologetic monologue and collapses over Sir’s body, reciting the Fool’s song: “He that has and a little tiny wit / With hey, ho, the wind and the rain / Must make content with his fortunes fit, / For the rain it raineth every day.”

Why it matters:

The Dresser is an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play of the same name, based on Harwood’s experience as a dresser to the English Shakespearean actor/manager Sir Donald Wolfitt. In an age when war plagued the public psyche, theatre was a welcome bastion of escape where audiences could forget the outside influence of Nazi Germany. We see this time depicted in other “theatre” films: To Be Or Not To Be (1942 and 1983) and The Producers (1967).

At first glance, The Dresser might be misinterpreted for a film about the limitations of an actor past a certain age, but Finney’s and Courtenay’s performances (along with those of Atkins) display a deeper and more sentimental significance: actors are nothing without their technicians. Norman’s precise attention to detail keeps Sir placated and on course so that the show may continue. And Atkins, who plays the company’s longstanding and bewearied stage manager Madge, must keep constant tabs on Sir’s progress as patrons fill the house. Both Norman and Madge continuously inform the other members of the company of the show’s status and must reassign roles after a member of their company is dismissed. The relationships the audience see onscreen transcend time.

The film uses the story of Lear to underscore the story of Sir and Norman. Sir is a Lear-like character, battling nay-sayers, dishonest young actors, and financial struggles, not to mention his increasing age and mental deterioration. Norman plays his fool: the younger man is fool enough to continue serving Sir through his master’s violent outrages and insulting remarks. Madge, the loyal companion of around 20 years, is Sir’s Cordelia, to which Sir bequeaths a treasured ring worn by himself and another great Shakespearean actor. Sir realizes his mistakes and attempts to mend them just prior to his death — like Lear realizes his folly at a time where the damage to his family has already been done.

If you’re looking to watch this title with a more updated production, check out the 2015 version of The Dresser starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Below (from the 1983 version) is Norman’s heart rending final monologue delivered by the infinitely skilled Tom Courtenay.

This film is the first featured in Part III of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part III.


Want to start with Part I? Check out 42nd Street (1933). Didn’t get to read Part II? Begin with The Band Wagon (1953).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from The Dresser. Photo copyright © Columbia Pictures 1983.