19 November 2004 | livewire-6
"All the world's a stage," wrote the Bard, "and all the men and women merely players that strut and fret their hour upon the stage."
"Stage Beauty" is set in the world of seventeenth-century Restoration theatre, but the stage serves as a microcosm for life itself, and the roles played by the actors before the public mirror the roles they play in their private lives. The question is, do they create their roles, or do their roles create them?
Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is an actor who takes on women's roles, since real women are not permitted to do so. He has been thoroughly trained and schooled in the then highly stylized technique of portraying women -- to such an extent that any trace of masculinity seems to have been drummed out of him.
His dresser Maria (Clare Danes) yearns to be an actress herself, but is prevented from doing so by the narrow conventions of Puritan England -- until Charles II is restored to the throne and decrees that, henceforth, real women shall play women's roles on the stage. A whole new world opens up for Maria, but it looks like curtains for Ned.
What happens next is pure anachronism: Ned and Maria are able to rise above the limitations and constraints of their era. Not only do they transcend their gender or sex roles, but they overcome their classical training and, in effect, engage in Method acting, a technique still three hundred years away in the far-distant future. When he teaches Maria how to break the mold and play Othello's Desdemona in a whole new, natural way, Ned becomes a seventeenth-century Stanislavsky.
But, by George, it works. Their performance of the celebrated death scene from "Othello" sends shock waves through an audience accustomed to pantomime and exaggerated gestures -- and it electrifies us as well.
Not since Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love" have an actor and actress so shimmered and shone simultaneously on stage and screen. One hopes that Billy Crudup and Clare Danes will be remembered for their luminous performances at the 2005 Academy Awards.