The Dresser

Written by Ronald Harwood

Thursday 28th April to Saturday 30th April and Tuesday 3rd May to Saturday 7th May 1994

Directed by David Penrose

It's 1942, and Sir is taking Shakespeare to the provinces. A Great Actor - a colossus of the stage; a star - but is all that only what he used to be? Tonight it's Lear - or is it Othello? Or is he getting too old and forgetful for any of it? Only faithful, insignificant Norman seems to be able to hold him together at all these days. And as what cost to himself?

The Dresser is a funny, beautifully observed portrait of a shabby backstage ego at odds with the glamour and greatness of his presence on stage; and the man who sacrifices his own life to keep him going.

AuthorRonald Harwood

Sir Ronald Harwood CBE (b 1934)

Ronald Harwood is an actor, playwright and BAFTA-and-Oscar-winning screenwriter well-known for his plays for the stage as well as the screenplays for 'The Dresser', 'Diving Bell and the Butterfly' and 'The Pianist'.

Born Ronald Horwitz in Cape Town, South Africa, Harwood moved from Cape Town to London in 1951 to pursue a career in the theatre. He changed his name from Horwitz after an English master told him it was too foreign and too Jewish for a stage actor. After training for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he joined the Shakespeare Company of Sir Donald Wolfit. From 1953 to 1958, Harwood was Sir Donald's personal dresser. He would later draw on this experience when he wrote the stage play, 'The Dresser', and the biography: 'Sir Donald Wolfit CBE: His life and work in the Unfashionable Theatre'.

In 1960, Harwood began a career as a writer and published his first novel, 'All the Same Shadows' in 1961, the screenplay, 'Private Potter' in 1962, and the stage play, 'March Hares' in 1964. Harwood continued at a prolific pace penning more than 21 stage plays, and 10 books. He also created more than 16 screenplays, but seldom wrote original material directly for the screen, usually acting as an adapter, sometimes of his own work (notably The Dresser).

Harwood also wrote the screenplay for the films, 'The Browning Version' and 'Oliver Twist'. He won an Academy Award for 'The Pianist', having already been nominated for 'The Dresser' in 1983. Harwood received his third Oscar nomination for his adaptation of 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly', for which he also won a BAFTA and the Prix Jacques Prevert Du Scenario. In 2008, he was awarded the Humanitas Award and he was knighted in the 2010 birthday honours list.

PlayThe Dresser

'The Dresser' was first performed in 1980 at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester with Tom Courteney as Norman and Freddie Jones as Sir 1981 and ran for 200 performances. It was later filmed with Courtenay repeating his performance opposite Albert Finney as Sir. The play was nominated for Best Play at the 1980 Laurence Olivier Awards and the film received 4 Oscar nominations.

Set in 1942, 'The Dresser' follows a performance and the backstage conversations of Sir, the last of the great, but dying breed of English actor-managers as he struggles through Lear with the aid of his dresser. The action takes place in the Principal Dressing Room, wings, stage and backstage corridors of a provincial English theatre during an air raid. Ronald Harwood based the play on his experiences as dresser to distinguished English Shakespearean actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit during the 1950s. However 'The Dresser' is not autobiographical; "Sir" in the play is not actually Wolfit. Rather, from his memory of those times, Harwood has woven a portrait of backstage life under a tyrannical actor-manager of a type now unknown.

The Bench Production

The Dresser poster image

This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.


NormanPete Woodward
Her Ladyship/CordeliaRuth Prior
Irene/Map CarrierAmy Jeavons
MadgeCeri Tipler
Sir/King LearPeter Corrigan
Geoffrey Thornton/FoolJohn Batstone
Mr Oxenby/EdmundVincent Adams
Duke of GloucesterJohn O'Hanlon
Duke of KentTony Ford
A GentlemanMichael Jenkins
Duke of AlbanyHenry Uniake
A TrumpeterKathy O'Hanlon


Director David Penrose
Stage Manager Sally Hartley
Assistant Stage Manager Lindy Nettleton
Lighting Andrew Ingle
Sound Recording John O'Hanlon
Sound Operation Jude Salmon
Costumes Margaret Houlton
Poster Design Pete Woodward
Set Design David Penrose
Set Construction Tim Taylor
Front of House Sally Hartley

Programme Notes

"...From the early 18th century until the late 1930s the actor-manager was the British theatre. He played from one end of the country to the other, taking his repertoire to the people. Only a handful ever reached London; their stamping-ground was the provinces and they toured under awful physical conditions, undertaking long, uncomfortable railway journeys on Sundays, spending many hours waiting for their connections in the cold at Crewe. They developed profound resources of strength, essential if they were to survive. They worshipped Shakespeare, believed in the theatre as a cultural and educational force, and saw themselves as public servants. Nowadays we allow ourselves to laugh at them a little and there is no denying that their obsessions and single-mindedness often made them ridiculous; we are inclined to write them off as megalomaniacs and hams. The truth of the matter is that many of them were extraordinary and talented men; their gifts enhanced the art of acting; they nursed and kept alive a classical repertoire which is the envy of the world, and created a magnificent tradition which is the foundation of our present-day theatrical ineritance..."

Ronald Harwood - Foreword to 'The Dresser'

Production Photographs