Words: Simon Button; pictures: Provided
As he sets out on tour in The Dresser opposite Matthew Kelly, Julian Clary talks about the play’s gay subtext, why he doesn’t consider himself a trailblazer, and how he no longer seeks to shock.
In The Dresser, you play Norman, the dresser for a Shakespearean actor in the 1940s known only as ‘Sir’. How would you describe Norman as a character?
He is quite a complex character. He is the dresser for ‘Sir’, so he’s in a servile position but he’s also very bright and thinks he’s running the ship in a way, as dressers often do. They chivvy everything along but they don’t have obvious authority, it’s more subtle.
Can you relate to him in any way?
I can, yes. There are very few parts I could play because I’m not really an actor. I couldn’t do Coriolanus this week, for example. With Norman, it’s the delivery, the humour, and the waspishness of him that appeals as well as the vulnerability.
There’s often been speculation since the play premiered in 1980 that Norman might be gay and is in love with ‘Sir’. What’s your take on that?
During rehearsals, we’ve been discussing whether Norman has a sex life of any kind but he’s very possessive of ‘Sir’. I don’t know if it’s an actual ‘Get your trousers off!’ lust thing but in the script, he asks: ‘You think you loved him? What about me?’ I think he loves him but he’s not in love with him.
So you think Norman is gay?
Yes! It’s not explicitly stated but he’s as gay as you could be in 1942 when The Dresser is set.
People will expect you to bring the camp to the role. Are you doing that or playing it down?
[Laughs] We’ll see. I’m just doing whatever comes out of my mouth and it’s written in a fairly camp style. [Laughs again] There’s a reason why I’m playing the part, shall we say?
Was Norman on your wish list of roles to play?
I don’t have a wish list. You get what you’re given! Most of my life is spent making up my own act and talking about myself, which is why it’s a nice change to inhabit someone else. And I like the feeling of taking on something I might not be able to do. I like the fear.
Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly in The Dresser
Although the play was written in the 1980s and is set in the 1940s, does it feel timely now?
There are lots of timely things about it. For example, there’s a war going on in the play and the whole COVID thing is like a war but without any bombs.
Have you known any Normans or Sirs in your time?
Oh God yes. One dresser I’ve used a lot is Norman. He’s kind of who I’m basing him on.
You started out in the 80s and you’re still going strong. Did you ever imagine you’d have such longevity in the business?
No, it was ‘Let’s do this for a couple of years, then I’ll become a probation officer or something’ so I consider it a triumph to have strung it out for this long without having to do anything proper really. Mainly I talk about myself and write about myself and manage to scrape by doing that.
Do you feel like a trailblazer?
I don’t, no.
But gay-themed stand-up comedy wasn’t exactly commonplace when you came to fame…
That’s why I did it, but I didn’t feel heroic doing so. Coming from a kind of left-wing world and circuit, when you get a bit more mainstream and suddenly you’re exposed to the Daily Mail and all that I really enjoyed upsetting them and being graphic about things.
Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly in The Dresser
Did anyone ever advise you to ‘tone down the gay’?
They did, yes, but my act was all about being gay. If I’d taken that out there’d have been nothing left. I did a teatime show called Treat or Treat and all they did was edit out the gay stuff, so they got their way in the end.
Do you think comedy now is as edgy as it was back then? Would you get away with the same jokes today?
It’s very difficult to say, because what was shocking then wouldn’t be shocking now. Just going on stage and talking about being gay would have grabbed people’s attention whereas now there are so many gay comedians around that a cull would not be a bad thing. And I’ve changed. I’m interested in getting a good laugh as opposed to a gasp from people, which would have been my desire once.
How is it being back at work on a play after various lockdowns?
Myself and Matthew Kelly [who plays ‘Sir’] did twice-weekly Zoom sessions for three months but it was a shock to my system when we started in-person rehearsals. I’m an absolute wet rag by the time I get home. No vim and vigour from me!
How did you cope with the lockdown?
I liked the whole slowing down, although I might have hated it if I didn’t have two books to write. That gave me a creative outlet. And I fell into a nice routine with the dogs, cooking my husband’s dinner and going to bed early. But then I’m 62 and I’m sure if you were 18 it was tragic.
The Dresser opens at the Theatre Royal Bath on 9 September, then tours the UK until February 2022.
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