47A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

 Stage Beauty
November 23, 2008

In the mid-seventeenth century, on the London stage, the most beautiful women in the world were played by men.  It was by order of the Crown, and the idea of a woman onstage drew the following sneer: “A woman playing a woman?  Where’s the trick in that?”  Such is the substance of Richard Eyre’s brilliantly staged and performed film, “Stage Beauty.”   It is a poignant entertainment that digs deep into the stage actor’s psyche and the painful transition from one school of acting to another.  As we learned in “Shakespeare in Love,”  at the time of the Bard it was unlawful for a girl to play a girl on a public stage.  Thus frustrated were the hopes and dreams of women who aspired to be actors themselves.  But in a sudden reversal of tradition, King Charles II nullified the law and declared that only women should play women on a public stage. 

The collapse of  gender monopoly in the world of theatre is just one of the themes animating “Stage Beauty.”  Another less obvious but prescient theme is the shift from exaggerated melodramatic acting to the natural, un-mannered style of present day.  Based on his play, author Jeffrey Hatcher has crafted an imaginative work detailing the heart-wrenching demise of performing artists suddenly cast to the wind.  The accomplished Billy Crudup plays actor Ned Kynaston: “The most beautiful woman on the London stage.”  Early on we see his portrayal of Othello's Desdemona, strutting and fretting,
posing and swooning in a death scene that would draw laughter today.  But we are reminded that for centuries theatrical performance has been typified by sweeping gestures, and histrionic mannerisms.  Exaggeration telegraphed meaning.  Shakespearean drama was performed largely for the masses and was expected not to thrust us into real life, but to remove us from it.

The excellent Claire Danes plays Maria, Kynaston’s loyal dresser who harbors a secret ambition to become an actress herself.  It is a pioneering, heretical ambition as there is no such thing as an “actress” at the time.  But her fortune turns abruptly when King Charles (a brilliant Rupert Everett) is convinced by his mistress to end the restriction on women performers.  Maria suddenly becomes a legitimate actor and her un-exaggerated portrayal of a woman is simply riveting.  Breaking new ground, defying tradition, Maria casts away faux manners and mimed emotions in favor of a naturalistic, disturbingly real method of acting.  She is an instant success, and her meteoric rise is countered by Kynaston’s fall.  He finds himself ridiculed, out of work, and eventually forced to play a stripper in an Elizabethan bawdy house.  But his suffering is no real fault of his own.  He is the victim of public perception, which in the theatrical world is quixotic at best.  To watch his attempt to play a “man’s man” is heartbreaking.  It’s like watching a silent film star gasp and heave their way through a talking picture.  It is near-to impossible for Kyneston to break from the old school of acting - until providence and Maria shine the everlasting light of love upon him.

In one of the most gratifying scenes of cinematic stagecraft, director Eyre remounts the classic death scene in Othello with a reborn Kynaston playing the Moor, and Maria playing Desdemona.  Both we and the play’s royal audience do not know what to expect.  Can Kynaston overcome his exaggerated mannerisms to become a believable Othello?  Will Maria’s naturalistic Desdemona be accepted by a dubious King and Court?   It is a soaring lesson in the method of performance art; made more poignant by an audience that has never before seen a real woman play the part.    A new artist, a disruptive acting style, boiled together in a scintillating Shakespearean stew that threatens to tear down the wall between theatrical illusion and harsh reality. 
We and the royal audience watch a shockingly realistic murder.  Desdemona is suffocated before our very eyes.  For one brief moment the King and his Court hang in pure suspense, distraught and unable to comprehend the murder they have just witnessed.  A real life drama has wrenched sincere emotion from its audience.  Then the King rises with a cry of “Brava!“  followed by thunderous, tumultuous applause.  It is a rousing triumph for Maria, for Kynaston and for the performing arts.  
Shakespeare and the "Stage Beauty" filmmakers seem to tell us, the more we see ourselves in our natural state, the stronger we are as individuals and community.  We can change the world around us without the use of melodrama, if we are willing to embrace one immutable idea… the urgency of unexaggerated truth.