“A woman playing a woman, where’s the trick in that”
Any film with Clare Higgins yelling ‘give me back my merkin’ is surely destined for stone cold classic status but 2004’s Stage Beauty seems to have slipped from people’s minds whereas I always remembered it as a film I really enjoyed, more so that Shakespeare in Love. Much will depend on your opinion of Claire Danes but this tale of the rapidly changing world of the theatre during Charles II’s reign proved much more enjoyable than Shakespeare in Love ever did, and offers a fascinating, even-handed look at how both the men and women of the stage were affected by the decision to ban the former from playing the latter.
Billy Crudup’s Ned Kynaston has become one of the top actors in town, specialising in female characters like Othello’s Desdemona in which he frequently steals the show and aided by his faithful dresser Maria, played by Danes. She has a burning desire to act on the stage herself but since the Puritans outlawed such a thing in professional theatres, she’s limited to appearing in grubby pub theatres on the fringe (plus ça change…). The thespian desires of Charles’ ambitious mistress Nell Gwynn seem set to change that completely though, along with the fortunes of all concerned.
What might seem trite, as a love story bubbles away through Maria’s adoring gaze, is actually much more nuanced in Richard Eyre’s film, based on Jeffrey Hatcher’s play which in turn took its inspiration from a comment in Pepys’ diary about Kynaston. Matters of gender, identity and societal hypocrisy fly up as the bisexual Kynaston, who trained for so long in the art of female impersonation and art is the correct term, this was a precise skill to be learned, finds himself cut adrift as he’s banned from playing women – his career stalled, his position in society shunned, his aristocratic lover losing interest now he’s just a man, Crudup giving a beautifully sensitive performance of a man stripped of his singularly unique purpose.
At the same time, Maria’s giddy rise to royal acclaim is a delight to behold as she blossoms into the actress she has longed to be, Danes capturing the shades of ambivalence she feels at supplanting her beloved Kynaston in fulfilling her ambition. The circumstances that throw them back together may be a little contrived but they are effective and the chance to see the differences in their style of acting compared to nowadays is instructive. Rupert Everett and Zoë Tapper have great fun in the royal court as Charles and Nell, Ben Chaplin’s closeted Duke of Buckingham is intriguing and Fenella Woolgar pops up too – what more could you want from a film?!