An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Stage Beauty (2004)
PUBLISHED: 16:12 12 May 2018 | UPDATED: 16:12 12 May 2018
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different
Stage Beauty; dir: Richard Eyre; starring: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, Zoe Tapper, Richard Griffiths, Hugh Bonneville, Edward Fox. Cert: 15 (2004)
If Topsy-Turvy, last week’s contemporary classic, provided a love-letter to the birth of what would become the West End musical, Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty is a touching and hugely entertaining look at the birth of modern theatre.
It captures the moment when women were allowed to perform on the stage and take over the great female roles of Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Juliet and Desdemona – roles previously played by men.
This important sea-change was prompted by the restoration to the throne of Charles II in 1660. He had witnessed female actors on stage in mainland Europe during his exile and decreed that never again would men play female roles.
While this was good for women working in theatre, it proved a heavy blow for the many professional male actors who specialised in female roles, people like Ned Kynaston, who was a huge star in London and overnight found himself out of work.
Director Richard Eyre, former artistic director of the National Theatre, creates a wonderfully believable world for his cast to immerse himself in. It stretches from Charles II’s palace at Whitehall to the seedy backstreets where London’s theatres entertained the masses.
Told through the eyes of an aspiring actress, Maria, played with a mixture of wide-eyed innocence and gritty determination by Claire Danes, Stage Beauty is not a po-faced piece of theatre history but a bawdy period romp which manages to engage both our hearts and brains thanks to a lively script full of snappy dialogue.
It also helps that the story of Stage Beauty is based on a true story. The story is populated with a dozen real characters of the time. Ned Kynaston, played here by Billy Crudup, was a hugely famous male ‘actress’, Nell Gwyn, is played with plenty of vivacious East End sass by Zoe Tapper, while Tom Wilkinson is a understandably nervous theatre-owner Thomas Betterton and Hugh Bonneville makes for a comically sleazy Samuel Pepys who miraculously appears backstage just as people are getting undressed.
However, it is Rupert Everett who virtually steals the film as a larger-than-life Merry Monarch but thankfully has the good sense to reign in his performance when it threatens to cross the line into caricature.
But, although there is a lot of fun to be had mixing in this boisterous world, there is a real heart to the film to be found in the relationship between Maria and Kynaston. Maria watches Kynaston play Desdemona in Othello and is desperate to act but when the opportunity presents itself, she finds that the highly stylised way that men perform the role is not easy to replicate.
She sneaks off with Kynaston’s costumes to perform as Desdemona at a small tavern theatre to learn her craft. It takes time to realise that she doesn’t have to play at being a woman, she is a woman, and can perform much more naturally.
However, it is Kynaston who has the greater problem, having played a hugely respected woman for so many years, he finds it hard to adjust to life as a man.
Crudup and Danes deliver a pair of finely judged performances which give the film real substance and provides a balance to the frivolities experienced at court.
Although, there are similarities between this and Shakespeare in Love, the most obvious is that they both revolve around a woman finding her place on stage, Shakespeare in Love is more of a straight-forward romantic comedy whereas Stage Beauty has greater depth and reality – and history on its side.
The world it inhabits is much less picture-book than its Oscar-winning counterpart. The streets are dirtier and the theatres more functional. You get the feeling that these busy work-places with their make-do and mend costumes are probably very close to the reality of early Restoration theatre.
It’s a world that Richard Eyre and the cast revel in and its infectious. As you leap from theatre to royal court and back again you go from a flickering, dark, claustrophobic enclosed experience to a bright, spacious, expansive place where your every whim is catered for.
The script, by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, is sharp and funny but it is tragedy and the humanity of these fragile lives that stay with you after the credits roll.