A female theatre dresser creates a stir and sparks a revolution in seventeenth century London theatre by playing Desdemona in Othello. But what will become of the male actor she once worked for and eventually replaced?
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Based in the 1660's of London's theaters, this film is about the rules of gender roles in theatre production, and means to change them for everyone's benefit. Ned Kynaston is the assumedly gay cross-dressing actor who has been playing female parts in plays for years, particularly Desdemona in Othello, he also has a close relationship with a member of the Royal Court, the Duke of Buckingham. One day however, the rules of only men playing women could change when aspiring actress Maria auditions as Kynaston's praised role, Desdemona, and soon enough, King Charles II decides to make the law that all female roles should be played only by women. Maria becomes a star, while Ned finds himself out of work. But after a while, Ned finds it in his nature to forgive Maria's aspiration, they may even fall in love, and Charles may proclaim women will be played by either gender. Written by
Inspired very loosely by true events, with many characters based on actual personalities from the 17th-century stage. Ned Kynaston did play female roles, but also played male roles before and after women were allowed on stage. He would have been 20 in 1660, when the first woman appeared on stage. Margaret Hughes (Maria) is supposed to have been the first woman to appear in a stage production, aged 30. She did appear as Desdemona in Othello, on 8 December at the theater on Vere Street operated by the King's Company, whose manager was Thomas Killigrew, not Thomas Betterton as the film shows. Betterton was a successful theater manager later, but was only 25 in 1660. Other characters also were not historically the age that they appear to be in the film. For example, Nell Gwynn was only 10 in 1660. See more »
The word "fan" (short for "fanatic"), meaning an enthusiastic admirer, was not used in this sense until the late 18th century. See more »
King Charles II:
Why shouldn't we have women on stage? After all, the French have been doing it for years.
Sir Edward Hyde:
Whenever we're about to do something truly horrible, we always say that the French have been doing it for years.
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We sat for the first few minutes wondering whether we'd come to the right film (expecting a formulaic period romp). And for a little while I was prepared to spend the rest of the evening apologising to my partner for the slowness and oddness of the film. But once our disbelief had been suspended and we'd got used to the cramped feeling of the film (more like a staged version than cinematic at times), we both loved it.
I agree that Claire Danes acted well (though the hyperventilation happened once too often) and Billy Crudup brought a complexity to the role that I rarely see in films. The reference to Shakespeare in Love is an affectionate comparison: I enjoyed the light snack of Gwinny, luvvies and Fiennes and have sat through the DVD time and again. But that film had a predictability that Stage Beauty lacked. We didn't know that Stage Beauty's 'love element' would ever work out.
I do not see the development of the relationship between Danes and Crudup as a conversion from gay to straight. Instead I see a problematic progress from an imposed gender identity (perpetuated through sexual fantasy by Buckingham) to an un"knowing" but more satisfying state, where it's being yourself (whatever that is) not performing a role that counts. I think that this is relevant to all of us as we perform the roles that we and those who've influenced our upbringing have created for ourselves. We can't easily escape them (and some are more hammy than others in their performance) but the knowledge that life is performative and complex is, for me, liberating.
And all that from a costume drama!
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