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Ned (Billy Crudup) may be the most desired man in all of Restoration London. With only men permitted to tread the boards, Ned is revered for his role as Desdemona in Othello. Ironically, Maria (Claire Danes), Ned's stage dresser who secretly adores him, becomes a sensation with her pseudonymous portrayal of Desdemona. Once King Charles II (Rupert Everett) overturns the ban on actresses and prohibits men from playing female roles, Ned's career is ruined—until Maria takes it upon herself to make an actor of him again. Co-starring Ben Chaplin and Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Richard Eyre (Iris).

 Stage Beauty

Many people love films and hate the theatre. They are drawn to the cinema because they enjoy its dreamlike disengagement, while the theatre enlists them in responsibility for the success of the event and makes them feel culpable if it fails. And they hate theatre’s aesthetics: it’s all in wide shot, the point of view never moves and they talk a lot. In his primer on filmmaking, Notes on a Cinematographer, Robert Bresson talks of theatre as the dead hand on cinema, most films being, in his words, “filmed theatre” rather than an expression of the art of “cinematography,” which should owe nothing to a theatrical or literary tradition. And it’s true that by Bresson’s criteria, many—or most—films fall short. What price then for films which are about theatre?

But there are many films which either use the theatre as a background or are set in its world— Les Enfants du Paradis, To Be Or Not To Be, Stage Door, Twentieth Century, All About Eve, 42nd Street, The Country Girl, Opening Night, The Travelling Players, The Dresser, Shakespeare in Love…. The world of theatre is like the mafia, the army, prisons, nunneries and schools for apprentice wizards—attractive to filmmakers because they’re closed societies. Being inaccessible to first-hand scrutiny, their authenticity can’t be challenged by the audience, so filmmakers are free to invent customs and rules and behaviour that have as much relationship to real life as Bambi does to the life of a deer in the wild. It doesn’t make them any less entertaining; in fact rather more so.

The theatre (and the film business) probably fuels rather more fantasies than most enclosed worlds. Some years ago I was introduced to a friend of my father’s, a brigadier. “What do you do,” he asked solicitously. “I work in the theatre,” I said. “Ah,” he nodded thoughtfully, “must be a lot of fucking.” Is it too disappointing to say that the world of theatre—for all that it sometimes involves actors taking off their clothes and pretending to make love—is a world like any other? Or at least any other in which people work in the evenings and live to please and please to live. In reality it’s rather less bitchy, competitive—and possibly lubricious—than, say, the world of politics, journalism or football.

Stage Beauty is set in a theatre that I’m not familiar with, a theatre without women—at least on the stage. It’s the story of the first female actor to appear legally in England and the last male actor to make his career by playing women. And at least in the fate of its protagonist, Edward Kynaston (played by Billy Crudup), it is, as they say, a true story. Charles II (played by Rupert Everett) was restored to the throne in 1660 and the eighteen-year Puritan ban on theatre performances was lifted. In his diary for that year Pepys observed that “the prettiest woman in the whole house” was a (male) actor called Ned Kynaston.

Male actors—or at least boy actors—had played the women’s roles since the early 16th century. Boys were apprenticed to the men of the company and trained to play women until they reached puberty and in exceptional cases—such as Ned Kynaston’s—beyond. There’s a lot of evidence of the skill of these boys as actors and female impersonators, but also of their sexual allure. “To see our youths attired in the habit of women, who knows not what their intents be?" said a contemporary of Shakespeare but perhaps, given the widespread inclination of audiences to fantasise about actors’ off-stage lives, his sexual imagination would have been as much provoked by the thought of female actors.

Ned was a star, admired by and responsive to both sexes, rumoured to be the lover of the Duke of Buckingham (played by Ben Chaplin). Under pressure from the clergy and, in the film, under pressure from Nell Gwynn (played by Zoe Tapper—and, yes, that bit is anachronistic, he didn’t meet her until eight years later), the King changed the law and forbade men to play women on stage. After losing his career playing women, the real Kynaston became a successful actor of male roles (including Othello), married and had children.

Not much more is known about Ned Kynaston except that, as in the film, he was beaten up by thugs employed by Sir Charles Sedley (played by Richard Griffiths), who was briefly the patron of Mrs. Margaret Hughes, the first woman to act on the English stage: she played Desdemona in a production of Othello. In the film Mrs. Margaret Hughes is the stage name of Ned’s dresser, Maria (played by Claire Danes) who then becomes his rival. As Maria rises to stardom Ned falls from grace; “the prettiest woman in the whole house” becomes unemployed and unemployable.

For the film we invented Ned’s acting style as a woman. I dug up a book I’d read about twenty-five years ago—Elizabethan Acting by B.L. Joseph—which argued that it is folly to imagine that Shakespeare’s actors were less concerned with truthfulness of feeling than actors of our day, but they showed their feeling in an extravert and demonstrative way. Their acting displayed a poetry of movement, made up of gestures and physical attitudes in which ideally, as Hamlet advised, the action was suited to the word. These actions are illustrated in Joseph’s book by 16th century drawings of a repertoire of hand movements then in use on the stage—not an acting manual but drawn from observation. We borrowed many of the gestures to concoct a syntax of acting that could be read by candlelight: graphic, very stylised, mannered, elegant, out front.

In Stage Beauty we see Ned’s demonstrative style of acting replaced by something that looks like the acting of today. In reality this process took about 350 years: say between the opening of Othello at the Globe Theatre in 1604 and But Ned’s fate is something more than artistic redundancy. The evolution of the art form takes away his livelihood, like a silent screen actor with the coming of the talkies, but it also deprives him of his identity. “Never forget,” his tutor said to him, “You’re a man in woman’s form.” Who he is professionally and what he is sexually are inextricably bound together. The question that the film explores is this: who is he now?