Theatre dresser Maria dreams of acting, but the laws in Restoration England prevent women from appearing onstage. Instead she idolizes Edward Kyanston, famous for his depiction of females, especially Desdemona. Then Charles II declares only women may portray women, and Maria rises to fame. But can Kynaston learn how to act the part of a man?
Stage Beauty plays a little bit with history to create a compelling drama about the rise of the actress in Restoration England. By imagining a law banning men from depicting women on stage, the film dramatizes a sudden shift in the career of Edward Kynaston (known to history as the boy actor whose beauty Samuel Pepys admired in his diary) from lauded actor to washed-up has-been. His downward trajectory contrasts with the rise of Maria, a theatre dresser who becomes (in this story) the first female on the English Restoration stage. The result is a film notable more for its depiction of a historical moment than for its story.
The storylines of Maria and Edward are seemingly meant to be intertwined, but the film shifts its focus from the two sporadically, making it difficult to determine where the focus lies or how the two storylines are meant to comment on each other. This, combined with the extremely unlikable and somewhat misogynistic personality of Edward, makes the film somewhat difficult to watch. Whom should we cheer for? Whom should we ship? Anyone?
The real joy of the film lies in seeing the historical figures come alive. Kynaston’s depiction proves disappointing, but Samuel Pepys, Charles II, and Nell Gwyn all make appearances, giving the film a feeling of exuberance–and rightly so. After years of being closed, the theatre is rising again. It’s an exciting time and the film makes sure to linger over the theatrical details, from scenery and acting methods to the depiction of what a man portraying a female would look like and the acknowledgement that Othello would have been played by a white man. It’s lavish and spectacular and exciting and uncomfortable all at once.
I doubt I would ever watch Stage Beauty again, but I enjoyed seeing how the Restoration might have staged Shakespeare (excepting that bit where the film imagines Kynaston and Maria inventing naturalistic acting). Modern audiences might find Kynaston’s Desdemona overly stylized or even somewhat ridiculous (as Maria’s impersonation of Kynaston impersonating a woman makes all too clear). However, audiences at the time loved it. And, watching the actors struggle to bring their roles to life, modern audiences might find something to love, too.