The Dresser

Wickedly funny and deeply moving story of friendship for BBC Two

Interview with Sarah Lancashire

As an actor I think it's the greatest piece ever written about actors. It is such an emotionally driven piece and you see exactly what makes actors tick and the need to get on the stageSarah Lancashire
Date: 21.10.2015     Last updated: 23.10.2015 at 17.20

Tell me a little bit about what you knew of The Dresser?
I didn't see the stage play but I'd seen the film a number of times and it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece.

Had you worked with any of the team before?
Richard and I have worked together before, about five years ago. I've never worked with Ian and Tony but they're extraordinary and it's a privilege just to stand and watch and see this, feels like a little bit of history in the making to be honest. We had two weeks in a rehearsal room before we hit the stage and just being able to sit there and watch these extraordinary talents was pretty breathtaking really.

For those who don't know the story, what is The Dresser is about?
Norman's the dresser and Norman has been with Sir for many, many years. On this particular day, Sir is not well, he's been into hospital, he's come out of hospital, he's come to the theatre he's ready to perform, and he's not well enough. But he decides to do the performance anyway and of all performances it's King Lear. Norman helps him through it, my character, Madge, doesn't particularly want him to do the performance; she doesn't think he's well enough. Watching Norman and Sir, you realise it's possibly the greatest love story ever - it's an extraordinary coupling.

Tell us a little bit about Madge and where she sits within the story?
Madge is responsible for the show when it's up and running and for the decision as to whether the show should run. She's really overruled by Norman and Sir, she has his best interests at heart because she can see that he's not well. Madge has been with them for a very, very long time - she probably serves as Company Manager when they're moving from theatre to theatre on a Sunday. She's quite a sad character, there's a well of disappointment, bitterness, resentment and loneliness because she has been in love with Sir for 20-30 years unrequited.

And as you say, the Norman/Sir relationship is one of the great love stories…
Madge and Norman don't get on. Norman has what Madge would like and that's Sir, and Norman is very good at not letting her in to that inner sanctum and so you realise very early on that there really is no relationship there.

How true does it feel? How much does it resonate with your experience in theatre?
As an actor I think it's the greatest piece ever written about actors. It is such an emotionally driven piece and you see exactly what makes actors tick and the need to get on the stage, especially in this instance when the stakes are so high and he [Sir] is so ill.

But it just makes that world feel very accessible to people who are not in the theatre and you really see how it works, where the loyalties lie like just this extraordinary inner strength which is needed for him to get on the stage. Also the way Norman beautifully just compels him to, even just to get him through the half in order to get him on the stage and metaphorically holds his hand all the way through. It's so beautifully, beautifully done, it is a great, great love story.

What has it been like working with Anthony and Ian?
It's extraordinary. You are acutely aware that you're watching two of the greatest actors ever. When you watch them you realise why, so just to be in that close proximity, just to see how these characters coming to life immediately, and they are living them, it's incredible. It's essentially a two-hander, but it is seeing how they work together is what is quite extraordinary. It is quite unlike any other relationship that I've ever seen - because of the nature of the characters.

It's a period piece but is a dresser still an important person in the theatre?
They're very, very important people in the theatre. You rely very heavily on your dresser. They literally know what you're doing and where you're supposed to be at exactly the right time and they literally grab you and pull you and rip clothes off you and put them on and point you in the right direction. There are people who carry the same dresser right th a career because they are very sought after.

If Madge is resentful of Norman, how does she feel about Her Ladyship?
Oh she's very tolerant. Madge knows her place. Madge knows that there would never have been any possibility. They may have been a very fleeting liaison between her and Sir 30 years ago when Madge maybe had a little bit of something to offer, but unfortunately she's had to stand back and watch streams of women come through the company and with Sir attracted to them, so Madge is very much on the outside looking in.