Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (11 March 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

Worship
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7:30am Morning Prayer
8:00am Eucharist
8:30am Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
5:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
6:00pm Choral Evensong

Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (11 March 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

Continuing our Lenten sermon series 'Reel Spirituality', Canon Michael Hampel explores the consequences of placing selfish ambition before our duty to God and our duty to our neighbour as depicted in Peter Yates's 1983 film The Dresser.


William Shakespeare’s first experience of the theatre took place when his father, the Mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon, invited strolling players to perform at the town’s mediaeval Guildhall. In the repertoire of these touring actors was an anonymous play about the mythical British king of the dark ages, Leir.

Four hundred years later, groups of Shakespearean actors were also trundling round the country performing the works of the Bard and one of the most popular of his tragedies, Shakespeare’s own version of King Lear.

And, at the height of the Second World War, people ventured out under the bomb-ridden clouds of conflict to go to their local playhouse not only to see great theatre but also to convince themselves that they still had souls which could be inspired afresh by the passage of drama in what Shakespeare himself calls ‘the two hour traffic of our stage’.

But the young and handsome actors had all been called up to act in a more visceral drama at the Front and so the audience had the dubious pleasure of being entertained by old men and maidens – the old men either long past retirement age or indeed lured out of retirement to flesh out the parts that the younger actors had abandoned to fight Hitler.

One such company had at its helm the legendary stage martinet, Sir Donald Wolfit – he of the rolling vowels and sonorous consonants who, like all good actors of his day, declaimed Shakespeare as if he were singing Verdi. Known solely as ‘Sir’, his dresser in the mid-1950s was the contemporary playwright Sir Ronald Harwood and it was Harwood’s experience of working with Wolfit that led him to write his play The Dresser which Peter Yates made into his 1983 feature film The Dresser starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtney.

The story fuses the two dramaturgies of Shakespearean drama – Tragedy and Comedy – because this is, as Polonius in Hamlet might himself have described it, ‘tragical-comical-historical-pastoral’.

Like our scriptural readings this afternoon, the story behind this film is about envy and selfish ambition and, while we laugh at the well-meaning inadequacies of the old hams, we see all too tragically beyond the humour Hitler on his relentless path of self-destruction in the skies above the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, where King Lear is slowly but surely destroying himself and everyone around him, played by Sir who – pushed by his ambition and his dresser beyond the limits of his failing health – destroys himself and is dead even before the stage door is locked for the night.

And what makes the tragedy of the film all the more tragical is that the principal cause of Sir’s downfall is love – both love of self and unrequited love.

Sir’s dresser is called Norman. He knows no life other than to be Sir’s dresser and he knows no other world than the theatre. It is here that he is – as he puts it – in his element. He is a heavy drinker and the prospect of Sir, the source of his very existence, not coming out for another season is so appalling that, despite the old man’s patent senilitude and frailty, he presses him through one more performance of Lear – his 227th – in the vain hope that the inevitable can somehow be avoided. What he actually achieves by this act of painful love is the old man’s death and his own self destruction.

Just before curtain up, the air raid siren blasts the icy chill of its warning across Bradford. Norman takes a heavy swig of brandy from his ever present hip flask and enters the stage in front of the curtain: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the warning has just gone. An air raid is in progress. We shall proceed with the performance. Will those who wish to live – will those who wish to leave do so as quietly as possible. Thank you.’

Sir, having revived a little from his earlier loss of sense and reason, declaims loftily to the heights of the fly tower above his head as he waits in the wings, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb us into oblivion if you dare, but each word I speak will be a shield against your savagery, each line I utter protection from your terror.’

And then there’s Madge, the stage manager, played by Eileen Atkins. For twenty years, this tight-lipped tense-faced woman has kept the show on the road, giving the impression neither of satisfaction in her work nor of dissatisfaction either. In the interval, Sir, seemingly aware of his impending doom, summons her to his dressing room.

‘You wanted to see me. About what?’

‘I look on you as my one true friend —‘

‘I have to go back to the corner.’

‘Twenty years, did you say twenty years?’

‘Yes.’

‘Have you been happy? Has it been worth it?’

[Pause]

‘No, I’ve not been happy. Yes. It’s been worth it.’

‘Speak well of me. Actors live on only in the memory of others.’

‘You’ll be remembered.’

And the tear that she fights away from the corner of her eye tells us that, of course, she is love with this monument of self-regard.

And so is Norman in love with him. They are both in love with a man who so loves himself that their love is unrequited and his is self-destructive. And thus between the three of them, for good and ill, the show goes on until the curtain comes down on Sir’s 227th Lear and on his life.

Envy and selfish ambition – the stuff of our readings from Isaiah and James – have spread like a cancer through the creative spirit of people who, to put it mildly, only meant well. But that’s what Lear tries to convince himself. And, in some ways, they achieve what they set out to achieve. The audience that night at the Alhambra Bradford are euphoric. No country that can produce Shakespeare and a performance of Lear as magnificent as this one could ever be defeated by something as evil as Nazism. Back in the bar in the interval, a father comforts his son who is sobbing his heart out at the horrifying passage of events in this Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. ‘It’s only a play,’ he says. His son is in uniform.

But, of course, it’s not only a play no more than this film is only a film. It’s the playing out of something very real – the playing out of what happens to us when we place envy and selfish ambition above our duty to God and our duty to our neighbour.

At the end of the film, Sir lies dead in his dressing room, covered by Madge against Norman’s ridicule, in his Lear cloak. Sir’s wife, ‘Her Ladyship’, is on her way back to the theatre. Madge recalls Sir’s encouragement that she speak well of him and enjoins the drunk, angry and despairing Norman to do the same.

‘Speak well of him?’ Norman asks. ‘I know what you’d say, stiff upper, faithful, loyal. Loving. Well, I have only one thing to say about him and I wouldn’t say it in front of you – or Her Ladyship, or anyone. Lips tight shut. I wouldn’t give you the pleasure. Or him. Specially not him. If I said what I have to say he’d find a way to take it out on me. No one will ever know. We all have our little sorrows, ducky, you’re not the only one. The littler you are, the larger the sorrow. You think you loved him? What about me?’

Silence descends on the scene. The camera angle shifts three times – each time taking the shot from higher and higher above the room until the viewer almost takes on the vantage point of God in his heavens – looking down on these passing players who have strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage and now are gone.

As we continue on our long journey to the cross of Calvary, one can only thank God for redemption.