Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Much Ado About Love

For those who contemplate the sources of romantic comedy, the road, according to Amanda Shubert in her Critics at Large piece, often leads to Shakespeare.

Undressing: Shakespeare and Romantic Comedy
Emma Thompson & Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing

When Kenneth Branagh adapted Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing for the screen in 1993, he had the good sense to shape it like a romantic comedy. Romantic comedy may be a modern genre, but Much Ado has all the same elements – most importantly, two lovers who begin as antagonists and find their way through the friction to a romance that is deepened by the challenges they pose to one another. It also has some of the funniest romantic banter in the history of theater and Emma Thompson, as the unstoppably witty Beatrice, blazes through those lines with the exuberant physicality of an English screwball heroine.

Much Ado may be the forerunner to all romantic comedy, but there’s another association between Shakespeare’s comedies and the modern genre: that like the lovers in Twelfth Night or As You Like It, the characters in romantic comedies often court through disguise. From Ernst Lubitsch’s sublime Shop Around the Corner and Preston Sturges’ mischievous The Lady Eve to the rollicking cross-country romance of Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild with its notes of darkness, romantic comedies are about the roles we play to win love and the risks we take in finally shedding our disguises to earn that love. (Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild both move through a series of disguises as the movie progresses and they fall in love with the men they try to con.) The love stories are quests for fulfilment, where the characters, through romantic surrender, throw off the defenses they have become all too comfortable in and with it the need for disguise.

Clare Danes & Billy Crudup in Stage Beauty
Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty (2004) is a romantic comedy about a Restoration staging of Shakespeare’s Othello where the cross-dressing disguises of Shakespearean comedy become the conceit through which the romantic partnership plays out. Set in London, at the moment when the ban against women acting on the stage was reversed, its lovers are Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), the last celebrity among actors who played the women’s roles, and Margaret Hughes, or Maria (Clare Danes), the first professional actress on the English stage. Stage Beautymakes those links between Shakespeare’s plays and modern romantic comedy explicit in a deliciously subversive and wittily postmodern exploration of the performance of gender and the enigma of sexuality and desire.

The screenplay, written by Jeffrey Hatcher and based on his stage play, is deviously clever. (Hatcher also wrote the winning, and overlooked, Casanova.) It fills the bare outlines of these historical figures with the spirit of Shakespeare’s transgressive comedies, with their ebullient sensuality, but the story also takes on the texture of the tragedy – Othello – on which it centers. Here, Kynaston plays the women’s roles with such sweetness and grace he excites the fantasies of men and women alike. Maria is his dresser, and she worships him – her performance as Desdemona in an underground production of Othello is pure, devoted mimicry from her nights mouthing Kynaston’s lines backstage, but it earns her the attention of Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville), who takes her to dinner at the palace of King Charles II (Rupert Everett). When she – with support from the king’s mistress, the perky would-be actress Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper) – persuades Charles to reverse the ban on actresses, and then finally decree that all women’s roles must be played by women, Kynaston’s career and his fragile identity, built around a series of transformations and disguises, crumbles.

Billy Crudup as Kynaston playing Desdemona

In Hatcher’s screenplay, Kynaston has been playing women both on-stage and off since he was a child, schooled in the balletic formulae of classical acting by a teacher who took young boys off the street and stripped them of their masculinity, molding them to his own perversions. With his thick orange ringlets framing an angular face and his daintily painted lips, from between which he issues gentle murmurs to his lady companions as he flicks his fan, Crudup as Kynaston in drag looks like a cross between a geisha and a model for a Rosetti painting.

But the movie’s joke is that almost everyone in the movie shows up in some kind of drag, and it’s a joke not just on the gender-bending of Shakespeare’s plays but on the elaborate performance of gender and authority in the Restoration period itself. The two aristocratic ladies who show up at Kynaston’s dressing room after a show, in their armor of feminine attire, look like absolute drag queens, and their primness is as affected as Kynaston’s – they want proof that he’s really a man, and when Kynaston coyly pulls their hands underneath his opulent gown, their prurience turns to bawdy delight. In Stage Beauty, every character is playing a role beneath which their sexual kinks are barely disguised. When a drunken, red-faced Richard Griffiths as the aristocratic patron of the arts Sir Charles Sedley mistakes Kynaston for a woman and tries to feel him up in the street, he’s only momentarily distressed to realize his mistake: “I’m on the market for a mistress. A male one might be just the thing.”

The Othello scene in Stage Beauty
In the central romance, theater is the metaphor for the way the lovers undress one another emotionally, stripping away each other’s disguises and defenses. As a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman, Maria is in love with acting but she isn’t any good at it, and Kynaston, a man trapped by the opacity of his own technique, can’t move beyond its shallow and seductive beauty to play the male characters that force him to confront the damaged parts of himself. Neither can fulfill their vocation until they learn to surrender the most vulnerable parts of themselves to the roles they play. When they return to Othello for a production requested by the king, with Maria as Desdemona and Kynaston, for the first time, as Othello, their mutual attraction, a desire shot through with anger and jealousy, brings the raw erotic power of the bedroom onto the stage. Not only do they get the characters right, they reveal shocking new ranges of emotion within the poetry of the lines. They can also finally be lovers.
Unraveling these gender reversals – having men play men and women play women on the stage – may have had transformative effects on theater, but the sudden shift to naturalism on the stage in Maria and Kynaston’s final performance of the death scene in Othello is abrupt dramatically and wholly anachronistic. (When Kynaston, for all his classical training, becomes Maria’s acting coach, it’s like he turns into Konstantin Stanislavski.) Yet the movie is so full of cheerful anachronisms you don’t mind this bit of historical fantasy. It may be a period movie but in its perspective, with the feminist freedom and kinky pleasures it allows its characters, Stage Beauty is shamelessly contemporary. (Nell Gwynn, as played by Zoe Tapper, is like a sprightly, street-smart suffragette risen from the working class to stake her claim for the rights of women to do whatever they damn well please.) That’s part of the movie’s levity, its appeal. Like Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, which he described as an attempt “to subvert period movies, to do it with people scratching their asses and being in relationships for real,” Stage Beauty injects its period subject with a mischievous psychological realism that sets it satisfyingly off-kilter. As a romantic comedy, it uses that realism to go straight to the heart of the riddle of desire and how it both unsettles us and reveals our most private, most dynamic selves.

Gwyneth Paltrow & Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love

Radiant as Stage Beauty is, it continues to be outshone in the popular imagination by another cross-dressing Shakespearean romance that came out six years earlier: Shakespeare in Love. Directed by John Madden and written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (best known for his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), Shakespeare in Love imagines Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) as a disconsolate romantic searching for his muse. He finds her in Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) who, like a fairy tale princess locked in a tower, longs to escape the strictures of her aristocratic life, and with it her engagement to the jealous Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), to seek poetry and adventure. Viola dresses as a boy to audition for a production of an upcoming play, one that Will is still trying to write. The play becomes Romeo and Juliet, and as Will and Viola fall in love and Viola’s disguise melts away their courtship and love affair plays out the story of Shakespeare’s most famous lovers.

Gwyneth Paltrow in disguise
When I saw Shakespeare in Love as a teenager, I thought of it as an enjoyable confectionery bit of film-making – pretty to look at, charming in its clever Shakespeare symmetries, and more or less without substance. As an adult, I’m less sympathetic. It’s a confection that doesn’t sit well. Like so many romantic comedies that use cliché to arm themselves against real feeling,Shakespeare in Love betrays the genre. It doesn’t show you lovers who take risks to grow: it’s a fairy tale, rigged from the start with good guys and bad guys, and it asks you to accept melodrama as emotional realism. (The movie starts out as comedy but switches gears midway and veers for melodrama – tellingly, Madden and the screenwriters don’t trust comedy to carry the weight of their dramatic ideas.)

Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare...thinking?
As mediocre movies go, Shakespeare in Love is so damnably frustrating because it should be much better than it is. Its supporting cast – which includes Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth, Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe, the manager of the Rose Theater, and Ben Affleck as Ned Alleyn – is strong and the characterizations are witty. But it’s not enough to light up your imagination because as the lovers, Paltrow and Fiennes show nary a whiff of sexual chemistry. They’re one of the most uninspiring romantic pairings ever to excite the fantasies of the mass audience. As the young bard flush with romantic charms, Fiennes is ridiculous. He’s the kind of performer most people think Keanu Reeves is – unimaginative and almost fascinatingly without charisma. He’s good looking but he can’t figure out what to do with his good looks; it’s like he’s doing an impression of sex appeal based on the glossy male models in women’s magazines. If Will is supposed to be Romeo here, he’s Romeo at the beginning of the play, the naïf uttering Petrarchan clichés – a figure Shakespeare treats with gentle irony – through and through.

How can you not feel betrayed by a movie like Shakespeare in Love that scores its points on a story about taking risks for love but leaves nothing real at stake? Even in that famous scene of Gwyneth Paltrow spinning like a dancer as Joseph Fiennes unwinds the cloth binding her breasts, nothing is surrendered or revealed in the undressing. In Stage Beauty, every moment of undressing, from Maria helping Kynaston out of his costume after a performance to Kynaston tearing off Maria’s costume in a rehearsal of Othello, expresses these characters seeking each other and themselves through the unraveling of identity and disguise. “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably,” Benedick tells Beatrice in Much Ado, in a single line that gets to the essence of romantic comedy. In Stage Beauty, the wit and wiles, subterfuges and facades, become not just a screen through which the characters try to find each other – they are the very texture of the romance.  

- originally published on September 15, 2012 in Critics at Large.

Amanda Shubert is a doctoral student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop

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