The new BBC-Starz production of Ronald Harwood's 'The Dresser' is a riveting play-within-a-play and then some that throws its arms around the subjects of life, lessened dreams and simply getting on with it.<br/><br/>Directed and adapted by Richard Eyre with a cast headed by Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Watson, the work focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that tours the outskirts of England (very pointedly, not London) during the bombing, quite literally, of that country during World War II. <br/><br/>Each night the troupe performs a different Shakespearean play, come hell or high water. Tonight, it's "King Lear," with Hopkins's character, who is called Sir (for the outside hope that he will one day be knighted by the Queen), in the lead.<br/><br/>Attending him backstage is his loyal dresser _ his costume man _ Norman, played by Ian McKellen.<br/><br/>What transpires is a nigh-on perfect production (Rotten Tomatoes gave it a perfect 100%) that sails along all too quickly with no down spots, not only giving us a dead-on accurate view of the theatrical world and those who dedicate their lives to it if even in the shadows, but as fine a treatise on life and love as you've experienced in any medium anywhere, at any time.<br/><br/>The story opens as we await the arrival of Sir from the hospital, with a conversation between the long-suffering dresser Norman and Her Ladyship (Emily Watson, in another terrific turn), an aging actress pressed into playing one of Lear's daughters, Cordelia, who knows she's too old for the role _ slashing reviews never let her forget it _ but who stays with it because of her love for Sir and the hope he will leave the business and settle down with her.<br/><br/>Ah, but Her Ladyship isn't the only woman in love with Sir. There's also Madge, the tough stage manager. As played by the wildly versatile Sarah Lancashire, whom we've seen portray everything from hard-bitten cops to frazzled shopkeepers, it's a character with more layers than the proverbial onion.<br/><br/>What's wrong with Sir, is it a physical problem or mental? Will he survive? Will he show up?<br/><br/>When the old actor finally does arrive backstage spouting a riff of quotations, his own mixed with Shakespeare's, we worry that he might expire before he can be carted before the footlights.<br/><br/>Watching McKellen and Hopkins in apparently their first performance together is like watching two world-class surgeons at the top of their games doing open-heart surgery on the same patient at the same time. It's overwhelming. But the good news is that the two great actors don't compete for attention and become show-boats. Instead they have a mutual trust and respect for each other that is palpable. The characters benefit greatly from this, and so do we.<br/><br/>One of the production's most effective, poignant and revealing moments is provided by the veteran actor Edward Fox, who portrays a supporting performer trapped in a "play-as-cast" cycle, lesser parts falling somewhere between cameos and spear carriers. His final speech to Sir not only encapsulates the lot of actors universally, but the needs and longings of people outside the business as well.<br/><br/>"The Dresser" has been previously presented in the U.K. and on Broadway, as well as in a 1983 film, but this version takes a back seat to none other and may well be the best offering yet. It comes with the highest recommendation.