Gender-switching theatrics deserve an ovation in Shakespearean Stage Beauty.
Thursday, November 4, 2004
Life imitates art imitating life in Richard Eyre’s
wonderful Stage Beauty. Eyre, longtime director of the
National Theatre in London, and scriptwriter Jeffrey Hatcher,
adapting his own play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, are
men for whom theater is not only their livelihood, but their
passion, and it shows in every detail of this lovingly crafted
tale of rambunctious showfolk in Restoration era England.
Ribald, funny, and boisterous, it’s also a rich and soulful
meditation on life, identity, gender, and art.
STAGE BEAUTY ( * * * * )
Directed by Richard Eyre
Starring Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Ben Chaplin, Rupert Everett
(Rated R, 105 mins.)
Hatcher got the idea for the story from a few scant entries in the diary of Samuel Pepys mentioning an actor named Kynaston who was renowned for playing female Shakespearean roles in an era (ca. 1660) when women were barred from the stage. From what little is known of the historical Kynaston, Hatcher creates a bewitching love story and a vivid portrait of a culture in transition.
The film begins with a painted stage backdrop cranked up to reveal the technicians and actors scurrying about in the wings during a performance of Othello. Onstage, Edward “Ned” Kynaston (Billy Crudup), London’s most celebrated Desdemona, is enacting her death scene with such pathos, the audience interrupts the play with a standing ovation; only the corpse’s delicately raised forefinger silences them and allows the play to continue.
Watching raptly from the wings is Maria (Claire Danes), Ned’s dresser, who not only adores Ned but also longs to act. When Ned is carried off for the evening by his groupies, Maria absconds with his costume and wig and races to play Desdemona illegally on an after-hours tavern stage.
After 18 years of grim Puritan rule and dark theaters, King Charles II (Rupert Everett) is keen to liven up the theater scene. Influenced by his mistress, Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper), a saucy former orange-seller with acting ambitions of her own, Charles decrees that women may act onstage—and Ned Kynaston’s star declines. In a series of cruel reversals, the once-lionized Kynaston is abandoned by all but Maria, now called Mrs. Hughes, and ironically his chief rival onstage. When Charles decrees that men are forbidden to play women onstage, Ned must find a way to reinvent his career and himself to survive.
Rescued from the streets with other “pretty boys” and trained to play female roles with hand-wringing poses like “the five positions of female subjugation,” Ned has no idea how to act onstage or in life with any real feeling. In his exquisitely faceted gemstone of a performance, Crudup plays Ned not as effeminate, but given to gestures of grand theatrical artifice that come bubbling out of him like doves out of a magician’s sleeve.
A sly, cheerfully devious poseur in costume, and a witty gentleman about town who enjoys his power to fascinate men and women, Crudup’s Ned is still a work in progress emotionally. His complex emotional dance with Danes’ spirited Maria—adversarial, affectionate, always on edge—goes far beyond modern notions of gender and preference, whether they’re battling over theatrical turf, or playfully trying on and discarding gender roles like costumes to peel away the barriers between them.
Full of wit, Stage Beauty never, ever devolves into farce. Holding the mirror up to nature, the film abounds in actual mirror images. Desdemona’s death scene, played so formally at the beginning, is replayed in a rip-roaring finale that not only caps the movie with a bang, but reinvigorates a familiar theatrical moment with breathtaking urgency. It’s the last, best surprise in this vibrant, bountiful film.