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:: Stage Beauty

Stage Beauty, the latest film by respected British director Richard Eyre, has all the trappings of your standard period fare, angelic faced stars Claire Danes and Billy Crudup, plenty of Shakespearean prose and lace bustiers barely concealing voluptuous flesh beneath.

Despite appearances, Stage Beauty offers seasoned viewers of costume drama something much more. Set in 1660’s London at a time when women were forbidden to act upon the stage, Ned Kynaston played by Billy Crudup (Big Fish, Almost Famous) is London’s most renowned leading lady, made famous particularly for his portrayal of Desdemona, the heroine in Shakespeare’s Othello. Each night as he graces the stage, his beautiful and adoring dresser, Maria played by Claire Danes (Romeo and Juliet, Igby Goes Down) watches on, mesmerizing each and every breath of his performance from the wings.

After enjoying a seemingly never-ending reign of stage supremacy, known only by the likes of today’s equivalents- Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman, Ned’s world comes crashing down when a bored King Charles II (Rupert Everett), spurred on by his mistress Nell Gwyn (Zoe Tapper) and a bitterness, stooped in family history, about how the law banning women on the stage came to be, the King not only repeals the law but enacts another, reversing it. He declares, from now on, not only will women be allowed to play women, but also further, men shall never be allowed to play women, ever again. Aspiring actresses all over London rejoice as floundering male actors lament, “Whenever England is about to do anything vulgar we always say, the French have been doing it for years…”

Ned suddenly finds himself out of work and Maria becomes an overnight star, playing none other than Ned’s signature role, Desdemona. And so ensues a battle of the sexes, of the classes, but most of all, of wills.

With a plot such as this, the stage is set, so to speak, for dialogue laden with questions concerning the notions of gender and sexuality. Questions, however not of the kind seen in films such as this, like ‘Shakespeare In Love’, which exploit the sexual innuendo immersed in the language to maximum effect, but only hint at the reality of what lies beneath. Instead, Stage Beauty ousts the undertones and in so doing turns light banter into black comedy, more often dark than funny. But in doing so, the film loses none of the quips the Shakespearean double entendres are made for, but adds meaning that linger long after the cinema blackens. Well worth a look.