As an indicator of whether you should watch or not, any review of “The Dresser,” which airs Monday on Starz, is, at least on one level, unnecessary. All you need to do, really, is list the creators and cast.
Directed by Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal,” “The Hollow Crown”) it is an adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s critically acclaimed play, which explores the glory and brutality of the theater, the cost of courting greatness and the perils of loving too well and not at all.
Hannibal and Gandalf. Nixon and James Whale. Two former disciples of Laurence Olivier who, no matter what the project, inevitably worked at a level not accessible to most mortals. Not just together, at last, but also surrounded by a supporting cast that includes Emily Watson, Sarah Lancashire and Edward Fox.
And it is, it really is, just as magnificent, powerful and enthralling as you would imagine.
Yet to assume the greatness of “The Dresser” based on the simply sum of its parts is to miss the whole point of the story.
As we learn by watching Sir (Hopkins) attempt to pull himself together for yet another performance of “King Lear” in yet another decrepit village venue and Norman (McKellen) provide the anxious force driving the attempt, the magic of the theater isn’t magic at all.
It is vapors rising from a perpetually unstable compound of desire and dedication; talent and obsession; difficult work and complete fabrication. In murky confines, disparate people with complicated histories endlessly search for meaning, for immortality through art. They could be mad scientists; in this case they’re actors. But as every quest for immortality proves, a price must be paid.
In “The Dresser,” the grandeur of the theater is immediately rendered at least physically ironic: The action, over a few hours of a single day, takes place almost exclusively in the dim and cluttered dressing room of a third-rate theater. It looks like a prison, which, in a sense, it is.
Norman enters first, in a state of great agitation. Sir, the company’s star and a man never known for his equanimity, is now, apparently, having a total mental breakdown.
As Norman explains (with delicious twittering and self-involved digressions) to Sir’s wife (Watson), Norman found him wandering about earlier in the day and only just managed to keep him from stripping in public; he had no alternative but to take Sir to hospital.
But the breakdown is not the problem. The hospital is the problem; it seems Sir will not be released in time to go on tonight as King Lear, an event clearly far more catastrophic, at least to Norman, as any mental collapse could ever be; even Her Ladyship (as Sir’s wife is known) wavers. Though she sees the sense in cancellation, she also knows it would be the end—perhaps of this increasingly wearisome life, but also, perhaps, of Sir.
And so the stage is set. Outside WWII rages, bombs drop from the sky but within these walls, cataclysm is defined by cancellation and fate hangs on two questions: Is Sir able to perform and even if he is, should he?
By turns commanding and pathetic, Sir is a man who just missed greatness and is now come apart at the seams. As he wanders through a landscape as internal as external (he cannot remember what play he is preparing for), the faithful Norman stitches, tapes and shores him up, herding him toward his marks with compliments and reminders of past glory.
It is a dual act of bravery—the packed house is testament to the importance of theater even during an air raid—but also desperation and folly. In pursuing immortality, Sir has missed out on life, including the love of two women, his wife and his stage manager (Lancashire) and what could have been real friendship with his dresser. Instead, Sir’s head is now filled with so many characters, including the actor he wanted to be, that he has lost his own.
Norman has even more at stake. Having surrendered his own acting dreams to serve as adjunct to greatness, he cannot allow Sir to fail. Drawing courage from his flask, Norman coaxes and cajoles but increasingly he demands; without roles like Lear there is no Sir and without Sir there is no Norman. Which means his love of Sir, though real, is also a shadowy version of Sir’s narcissism.
Though they are actors who can do anything, Hopkins and McKellen are spectacularly suited for these roles. Hopkins famously left the stage because of its relentless nature but he remains as much a trouper as McKellen, and no one plays men who sought greatness and found madness, or ashes, like Hopkins does. With Sir he explores, at times nakedly, the specific toll of performance, with its contradictory demands of ego and humility, its use of fabrication to seek truth. A brilliant mind can hold opposing ideas but only for so long.
And while Norman may scrape and bow, as played by McKellen (currently a comedic version of Sir in “Vicious”) he is also continually measuring Sir and the situation with a practiced and jaundiced eye. Yet even he makes certain assumptions about the camaraderie of the stage and his place in it, and oh the heartbreak when they prove false.
Watson and Lancashire are wonderful, as is Fox in an eleventh hour monologue, but “The Dresser” is a prizefight, two champions circling each other in a battle over the purpose and perils of greatness.
They make it look easy, Hopkins and McKellen, the artistry and insight gained over two lifetimes, and that, of course, is the whole point.
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14)