Interview by Al Senter
It is a sultry afternoon in early September, almost the last hurrah of summer, and not the kind of sweltering day one would have chosen to carry out a technical rehearsal. Backstage at the Richmond Theatre, however, the first preview of The Dresser is barely twenty-four hours ahead as the company, led by Ken Stott as Sir and Reece Shearsmith as the eponymous Norman, prepare for the pre-London tour. For the interview, we manage to find a shady corner in the Circle Bar overlooking a somewhat parched Richmond Green and settle down for the encounter.
Stott is an actor who is never less than compelling. On stage your eye is automatically drawn to him and his is a commanding presence which always seems to be on the verge of a major explosion. It may be the influence of his Sicilian mother but Stott not merely simmers but rumbles like a foul-tempered Mount Etna. At the same time, Stott is never guilty of a false emotion or a wrong move. The string of television policemen whom he has played in such series as Rebus, The Vice and Messiah attest to Stott's ability to project a crumpled integrity, holding on to his principles whatever Fate may throw at him. A West End regular in recent years in God of Carnage ,Uncle Vanya and in particular a magnificent Eddie Carbone in Miller's A View from the Bridge, Stott now moves into somewhat different territory as Sir, the last of the actor-managers, bringing Shakespeare to provincial Britain at the height of the Blitz. What appealed to him about The Dresser?
"I spent a period of nearly ten years away from the stage and I promised myself Never again! It occurred to me that I was denying myself the chance of playing great parts in such quality pieces as The Dresser. I did see it years ago with Freddie Jones as Sir and Tom Courtenay as Norman but that is far enough in the past for me to have forgotten what another actor did in the part. I had read the play recently and for some reason it initially struck me as a little bit dated. Then I read it again when I was asked to play Sir and this time I couldn't understand what had possessed me to think that the play was dated. The Dresser lives!"
Reece Shearsmith and Kenn Stott in The Dresser
Central to the argument of the play is the bromance between Sir and his devoted dresser.
"They love each other" argues Stott. "If they do not then I don't think there's a play, although they happen to have an odd way of showing their love. Sir is not a monster- otherwise why would people be so loyal to him? We can all appear preposterous or ridiculous when we feel strongly about something."
Badly as Sir behaves at certain moments of the play, there is something wholly admirable about his iron determination to lead his company back on the road, whatever the circumstances.
"There are constant references in the play to such concepts as duty, loyalty, survival and the notion of service. Sir is one of a dying breed, who believes that the show must always go on, whatever the detrimental impact on your health. You might describe Sir and his company as 'strolling players' but that sounds as if they are making a leisurely progress around the country when I think that it was more like slavery, notwithstanding the bombing. Conditions were much more gruelling then compared to what we have to put up with."
Stott came into the profession in time to experience the backwash of the touring theatre circuit. He thinks back to these days with affection.
"I remember staying in proper theatrical digs in Belfast where I had my first professional job. You'd come back from the theatre and there would be just enough coal to use on the fire for the time it took you to eat a sandwich and drink a bottle of beer. I also remember changing at Crewe on Saturday nights; people would congregate on the platforms and you'd walk through the train and there would be parties going on in each of the carriages. There was a great spirit of camaraderie."
Kenn Stott in The Dresser
Stott is an unusual mix of the Caledonian and the Mediterranean. A son of Edinburgh, he attended the city's prestigious George Heriot's School where his Scottish father was Head of English and his Sicilian mother lectured at Edinburgh University. Stott concedes that he was no scholar and his earliest aspirations were towards music rather than acting with connections to the management team around The Bay City Rollers.
"My parents were enlightened enough to be very supportive of my endeavours," he recalls. "When it became clear that I was not academically minded, they gave me permission - I'd be about thirteen or fourteen at this point- to stay out half the night seeing plays during the Edinburgh Festival, provided I bought a programme and I discussed with them what I'd seen. In this way, I grew to love the theatre."
Stott is a man of strong opinions, vividly expressed, and he takes aim at several of the practices found in his industry.
"I'm not big on self-publicity," he says. "I seldom give interviews and I've never appeared on Breakfast Television. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy a good party but not ones that are full of people working the room. As it happens, I was at a party recently when I ran into a Casting Director I hadn't seen for seven years or so. We had an enjoyable chat and a laugh and the next day there was an enquiry about my availability from her. Would that have happened if I hadn't gone to that party? My ambition is to be good at what I do; it has always been my intention to do the best work I can, to the best of my ability. But if you come into this business, seeking fame and fortune, however, that is the first step on an extremely rocky road."