Stage Beauty (2004) is a costume drama taking place in 1660′s London in the world of theatre where gender roles are confusing to say the least. All female roles on stage are played by men, something that has to do with various preconceived notions on the general moral decay of the world of the stage. Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is the famous, and infamous, main leading lady/man, and his most acclaimed accomplishment is his role as Desdemona in Othello. There are still women at the theatre, but they are relegated to the role of dressers and general dogsbodies, working behind the stage only. Maria (Claire Danes) is one of them. Maria dreams of the stage herself, learning everything she can from Kynaston, all the way down to his gestures and inflection.
I get the sense that a part of the aesthetic behind all this is borrowed from the Shakespeare plays that are so heavily referenced in the story. The stages and costumes and the very showiness of the setting is a bit too much to be considered realistic. The actual performances of the plays within the play are not naturalistic, but rather very formal and contrived. Something of the naturalistic comes through in the very last performance of Othello and Desdemona that Maria and Kynaston give, and it’s done well enough that the entire house is so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. All this is very interesting, in a very art as a symbol for itself and woven through itself and using itself as a metaphor kind of way.
Also, the ban of female actors gets revoked through some very physical convincing from the King’s mistress, Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper). The King, played with a kind of decadent whimsy by Rupert Everett, inverts the whole world of the stage by forbidding male actors to perform female roles and thusly pulls the rug out from under the feet of the notorious Kynaston. Maria gets her shot at the stage, and more importantly, at Desdemona.
Through a series of mishaps and miscalculations on Kynaston’s part, he goes from being in the highest honours on the stage, with a noble patron/lover, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), and royal backing since the King is fond of theatre, to living more or less as a drunkard destitute mockery of himself on the less discriminating stages that mostly entertain the lower classes.
There are many themes in this piece, everything from class issues to gender issues and meta structural components that highlight the contrast between modern and post-modern presumptions on the actual playing of a role within a role, to the more rigid ideas of particular gestures adhering to a specific emotion on the restoration stage. It is a game of masks and identities and it could presumably keep a scholar busy for a while, but even with all that intellectual stuff there to keep the mind occupied, there is still something unformed about the central core of the narrative. For me, personally, I think it has to do with the way what happens to Kynaston is presented as a comedy of errors as well as a tragedy. Billy Crudup gives this performance an arm and a leg and a cynical twist that hides a sensitive heart. Clare Danes is good enough to be able to portray an actress who is frankly not always very good, which is difficult in and of itself. If anything the subject matter can be derived at as the malleability of gender and everything that goes with that.
I would have preferred that to be played slightly less for comedic value and more with some kind of serious intent. Take Maria’s performance as Desdemona the first time she does it, for instance. She models her acting completely on Kynaston’s. She is a woman playing a man playing a woman. That is more than complicated enough for me to cringe inwardly when she gets seriously mocked on stage for doing a bad job of it. That is more than enough fodder for thought without it being played for slapstick value. So the wit is occasionally like that of Shakespeare, who had to compare with bear-baiting and decidedly less gentile amusements when he wrote his plays. Presuming he did write them, if we want to be post-modern about the whole thing. The rudeness of the comedy is somehow at odds with what the there could be at the centre of it all this.
It is still well worth watching. The costumes and settings are sumptuous and gritty at the same time, Crudrup’s performance is impressive and there’s a nucleus of doubt about the value of hereto-normative certainties and the sometimes crude wit is entertaining and occasionally cringe-worthy. All that adds up to a slightly confusing, but entertaining spectacle. And that’s good enough for me.