LONDON • The audience, sitting in the hazy light of the Hackney Empire theatre, was dressed with drab wartime smartness and flinched slightly as the sound of bombs exploding outside interrupted the opening moments of King Lear. But the show went on.
"The king is coming," an actor announced.
After a long and awkward pause, the king strode on stage. Arms outstretched, he magisterially acknowledged the thunderous applause.
A man, standing to the side of the auditorium, held up his hand. "No, no," he told the audience. "Some applause, but not like it's for Anthony Hopkins!"
But it was indeed the actor, playing Lear for the first time since he appeared in the role in 1986 at London's National Theatre.
I think it was really the Lear that attracted me. When I did it before, I was a little too young. The irony is that when you are old enough to play these parts, you are actually too old!
ACTOR ANTHONY HOPKINS on acting in TV movie The Dresser
At least that was how it seemed to the audience, actually extras in The Dresser, a TV movie premiering in the United States today on cable and satellite television network Starz. The man who asked them to tamp down their applause was the film's director, Richard Eyre.
An adaptation of Ronald Harwood's play of the same title, The Dresser returns Hopkins to the stage, in a way, as the physically and mentally fragile actor Sir, struggling through his 427th performance of Lear as bombs fall on London in World War II.
In fact, Hopkins turned to film in 1987, the year after his run as Lear at the National and has famously refused to act on stage ever since.
He was not the only famous actor in attendance at the Hackney Empire. The film also stars Ian McKellen, working with Hopkins for the first time, as Norman, Sir's devoted dresser.
"It has been fun to watch Anthony, who eschewed theatre decades ago, coming back to a story about theatre," McKellen, 77, said in his dressing room during a break in the filming in March last year.
Over breakfast at his London hotel the next morning, Hopkins, 78, said he had been nervous during the previous day's filming.
"It was just like doing theatre again," he said. "O reason not the need!, the storm scene, Cordelia's death; it was wonderful to do all that again."
Colin Callender and Sonia Friedman, who produced the film in conjunction with the BBC and Starz, had a stage production, not television, in mind when they decided to remount the play. It had premiered in Manchester in 1980 and went on to great success in the West End and on Broadway. In 1983, it was adapted by Harwood for film and earned Academy Award nominations for both Albert Finney as Sir and Tom Courtenay as Norman.
Hopkins, who had discussed playing Sir with Harwood many years earlier, said the idea had stayed with him.
He said: "I felt like there was unfinished business. I had done Lear and Antony And Cleopatra on stage with the National, then skedaddled. I fear I wasn't a good team player; I didn't fit into theatre companies.
"It wasn't that I had a sense of regret, but I had a feeling, as I'm getting older, that I haven't used my full potential. I think it was really the Lear that attracted me. When I did it before, I was a little too young. The irony is that when you are old enough to play these parts, you are actually too old!"
Radiating energy and telling anecdotes about his early life in the touring theatre, he did not look too old to play anyone, even if - as McKellen noted in a stage whisper between takes - he looked "a bit like God" in his woolly white-haired Lear wig.
Earlier this year, the BBC said he would reprise the role in a full- length adaptation of King Lear to be aired on BBC2.
The play, which Harwood based on his experience as a dresser to the Shakespearean actor-manager Donald Wolfit, is set during the London blitz of 1940 to 1941, and evokes the stoic wartime world of regional theatre.
Asked what kind of research he had done into the period, McKellen laughed.
"I remember it!" he said. "The old warrior killing himself by doing these plays in very difficult conditions, to the accompaniment of bombs falling; it was how it was."
The Dresser and its unabashed love letter to the theatre has had a long and enduring life.
Harwood, 81, who was at the Hackney Empire to watch the filming of the Lear scenes, said that, since the play's premiere, barely a day has passed without a performance somewhere in the world.
He had first opposed the idea of another film, but the casting of Hopkins and McKellen proved irresistible.
"To cast Sir in this day and age is very difficult because there aren't grand actors like that any more," he said.
Hopkins made another point: "I don't think it's ever been played by two men of the same age - and an advanced age. It makes it more tragic."
NEW YORK TIMES