Richard Eyre says 'The Dresser' gives viewers a rare peek behind the scenes of a world they hardly ever get to see

Anthony Hopkins as Sir and Ian McKellen as Norman in The Dresser. (Photo: Supplied)
Anthony Hopkins as Sir and Ian McKellen as Norman in The Dresser. (Photo: Supplied)

Richard Eyre talks to Fiona Walsh about working with an all-star cast on his film of The Dresser, screening this week on SundanceTV.

Cape Town - Richard Eyre has had a sterling career. His most recent movie The Children Act, starring Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci, adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel, has just closed in South African cinemas.

His film Iris secured Oscar-nominations for both Judi Dench and Kate Winslet and a Best Supporting Actor win for Jim Broadbent. Used to working with powerhouse talent, for ten years he held one of the most high-profile arts jobs in the world, as artistic director at the National Theatre in London.

So, when he was approached to direct a remake of the British classic The Dresser for the BBC in 2015, with Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen already attached, he says it took him “more or less a second” to say yes. The movie screens on Wednesday, 27 March on SundanceTV (DStv 108) at 20:30 as part of the channel’s Brit Hits Season.

Originally a play by Ronald Harwood based on his real-life experiences working in theatre, The Dresser was first filmed in 1983 starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, who won a Golden Globe in the role of Norman, dresser to an ageing Shakespearean actor known only as Sir.

Although the relationship between Norman (McKellen) and Sir (Hopkins) is at the centre of the film and both give ‘riveting performances’ according to the New York Times, Eyre’s adaptation gives added prominence to the female roles and he cast a number of high profile actresses he had already worked with, including Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves, Gosford Park), Sarah Lancashire (Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley) and Vanessa Kirby (The Crown).

"I like working with actors I know," Eyre tells me from his home in the UK. "You can work with a sort of shorthand and shared experience always makes for good work. I wanted to give parity to all the characters, not just put the two male protagonists at the top of a pyramid, and much of The Dresser is about how women are ignored and taken for granted by men. And it was a wonderful opportunity to work with three of the best actresses in the English-speaking world."

While The Dresser looks at a man grappling with mortality and with the thought that he may have wasted his life, for Eyre it was also crucial to bring out the humour. "I think The Dresser is a marvellous combination of the grim and the droll. It has something of the self-obsession of the theatre world and its absurdity. But also, its splendour. John Gielgud said that acting is 'Half shame, half glory'. I think that’s spot on."

The Dresser_Emily Watson as Her Ladyship

(BACKSTAGE: Emily Watson as Her Ladyship in The Dresser. Photo: Supplied)

Eyre is a man with a lively sense of humour himself. While doing a round of press interviews to promote the film, he couldn’t resist pointing out to US TV presenter Charlie Rose that he’d just had Hannibal Lector and Gandalf together on a sound stage in London. 

Although he’s known both actors for decades and had worked with McKellen before, The Dresser was his first-time directing Hopkins and clearly, they both enjoyed the experience. Three years later Eyre directed Hopkins again in a film of King Lear, the play performed by Sir and his troupe of actors in The Dresser. Did Hopkins get a taste for the role of Lear while on set? 

"We talked a lot about the character during the shoot and he performed two excerpts when we filmed the stage scenes at the Hackney Empire theatre. His wife had never seen him act on stage before and she told the producer, Colin Callender, we should do a film of King Lear." 

With almost all the action taking place in a theatre, The Dresser is just one in a long line of films and plays that take audiences behind the scenes. Where does Eyre think the enduring fascination lies? "We all like being taken behind the scenes of worlds that we peer at from the outside – the police, hospitals, the army, marriage. And 'show business' is obsessed with itself as a subject – usually wildly inaccurately portrayed."

Eyre’s work means he is constantly crossing the globe and his travels have included numerous trips to Africa. What are his strongest images of the continent?

"When I was in my 20s, I spent time in Ghana and Sierra Leone and loved the landscape and the people. I felt much the same about Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. I’ve also always felt indignant about the way that Europeans have pillaged and plundered the continent of Africa."

Although now in his 70s he has previously said retirement isn’t on the cards and when I ask about upcoming plans, he reels off a list, including a production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, a new play about Paul Robeson by South African-born Nicholas Wright and a revival of his West End and Broadway hit Mary Poppins. "That will open in November. Next year I hope to make another film."

Clearly, he has no plans to slow down any time soon.

Watch Anthony Hopkins in a double bill of The Remains of the Day followed by The Dresser from 20:30 on SundanceTV, DStv channel 108, on Wednesday, 27 March as part of the Brit Hits season.

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