When you see the BBC bringing together Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins for a new drama you’ve got to sit up and take notice, especially when it’s an adaptation of such a great British play in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. The production is all the more significant as it’s the first time the two actors have ever appeared together in film, which for us amounts to the equivalent of Magneto calling Hannibal Lecter, asking him around for tea and cakes and hatching a plan to work on a magnets and blood themed entry to the Chelsea flower show.
The production began filming in London in March 2015, but an official air date has yet to be confirmed by the BBC. However, they have announced that it will be going out on BBC 2 later this year, so a late summer or early autumn transmission is likely. We’ll update closer to the time when the date has been confirmed.
The televised adaptation will rekindle the plot of Harwood’s play, which he adapted himself for screen in 1983 in the Peter Yates film of the same name. It provides a portrait of life in theatre, homing in on a tumultuous evening performance for a small production of Shakespeare’s King Lear in a regional theatre. Things start to lose their thread as the star of the show and stage manager, Sir (Hopkins), manages to go missing with just an hour to go until the curtain is planned to go up.
The mild pandemonium is set during World War II adding even more drama to the night with bombs falling and sirens blaring outside the relative safety of the theatre that the touring players are visiting. His dresser Norman (McKellen) does everything he can to keep things on track for the curtain call, but with a runaway King Lear and all hell breaking loose in the outside world he’s got his work cut out for him.
Hopkins and McKellen are added to by Emily Watson (The Theory of Everything) as Her Ladyship, Sarah Lancashire (Dad’s Army (2016)) as stage manager Madge, Vanessa Kirby (Jupiter Ascending) as Irene, Tom Brooke (The Boat That Rocked) as Oxenby/Edmond, John Ashton as Gloucester, Ian Conningham as Kent, Annalisa Rossi as Goneril, Helen Bradbury as Regan, Carl Sanderson as Cornwall, Matthew Cottle (Man Down) as Albany and Martin Chamberlain as a gentleman in the stage production. Edward Fox, who appeared as Oxenby in the original stage production and the 1983 feature film adaptation, will star as Thornton.
Both the two lead actors have themselves played King Lear during their own illustrious stage careers, so it will be interesting to see how they perform in the adaptation that share’s similarities with the Shakespearean play’s master and his fool.
BBC 2’s The Dresser is being directed by Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes On A Scandal), following on from the long history of great single dramas he has in his back catalogue with the BBC, including picking up a BAFTA for Best Director for the Falklands War story Tumbledown. It’s being produced by Colin Callender and Sonia Friedman, with Polly Hill, BBC Head of Independent Drama, and Ben Stephenson, Controller of BBC Drama Commissioning, as the executive producers.
It’s shaping up to be a very impressive single drama with two massive names coming together for the first time in the televised adaptation of such a well respected British play. With Richard Eyre in charge of direction, having had his own award-winning production of King Lear in 1997, it should be another exceptionally well constructed BBC drama.