Compleat Female Stage Beauty

Telecom Playhouse Theatre, WEL Energy Trust Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton

13/08/2008 - 16/08/2008

Production Details

The name of Hamilton theatre company Carving in Ice evokes the transience of theatre. Ice sculptures are crafted by artisans whose sculptures last only for a little while, then disappear from trace.  Theatre, too, is ephemeral in its existence; once the season is completed, the materiality of the play, its shapes,  sounds, movement in space and time, colours and characters disappear from view – but as with ice sculptures the traces of the experience still live on in the minds of those who were present.

As part of this winter’s season of theatre, and supported by University of Waikato’s Cultural Committee along with Hamilton Community Arts Council and Trust Waikato, local director and Lecturer in Theatre Studies, Gaye Poole directs a ‘Carving in Ice’ production of Jeffery Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty.  Written in 2000, this is a provocative and touching play, which addresses issues such as loss of jobs, gender fluidity and identity confusion.   It asks the question; to what extent is one defined by one’s profession?

The play is set in the theatre world of 1660’s London and tells the story of Edward Kynaston (Richard Homan), the most famous portrayer of female roles on the London stage in 1661. A celebrity artist shining bright at the crest of the Restoration, Mr K is applauded onstage and off for his interpretations of Shakespeare’s tragic ladies: Ophelia, Cleopatra, especially Desdemona and his famous ‘death scene’. He’s the toast of the town and the very secret ‘mistress’ of the powerful Duke of Buckingham (Moko Smith).

But when an unknown named Margaret Hughes (Pip Six) plays Desdemona one night at an illegal theatre, instead of stopping the show, the ever-game King Charles II (Brendan West) changes the law to allow women to act. By the stroke of a pen, Kynaston’s world is turned upside down. He loses his cachet, his livelihood, his lover and his sense of self.

When women such as the King’s own courtesan, Nell Gwynn (Jessica Anderson), and Kynaston’s former dresser, Maria (Louise Blackstock), become stars, his own light disappears until fate and his desire for revenge give him a chance to take the stage again.

Although set in the 1600’s the issues raised in the play are contemporary.   If we change how we are on the outside, does that fundamentally change us and how does that influence the way people receive us?

The cast includes Alec Forbes (Roy in Cosi and director of many Hamilton Gardens Summer Shakespeares), Richard Homan (awarded the best street act at the Dunedin Fringe Festival in 2006), Kirstine Moffat and Graeme Cairns alongside a cast of very dedicated up and coming local talent. 

Most of the cast, including Richard who plays Kynaston, have worked with Gaye before in the highly successful productions of The Laramie Project (2006), Cosi (2007), Half Life (2007) and Marmalade: sweet sour sticky (Fuel 2008).

Beautiful period-inflected costumes are a special feature of this production.

Where:  Telecom Playhouse Theatre
WEL Energy Trust Academy of Performing Arts,
Gate 1 or 2B – Knighton Road, Hillcrest, Hamilton

When:  13 – 16 August, 2008 (Preview 12 August)

Time:  8pm 13 /14/15 August – also 2pm & 8pm 16 August
Duration:  2hrs 15mins (including interval)
Cost:  Adult $22 / Students $12 / Concession $18

Tickets: 0800 383 5200 or WEL Academy of Performing Arts or Founders or Hamilton libraries

Nearly 3 hrs incl. interval

Shakespeare, Sex & Stanislavsky channelled in rich, ugly, beautiful play

Review by Vanessa Byrnes 19th Aug 2008

Jeffrey Hatcher’s delicious Compleat Female Stage Beauty is an eloquent text that provides a distilled, racy reflection on the role of the actor and the birth of acting in the 20th Century. The piece is set in the English Restoration and takes whacking great liberties with history, time, and real figures that are entirely excusable.

It’s a fabulous text that has since been made into a feature film with superb performances by Billy Crudup, Claire Danes and Tom Wilkinson under the moniker Stage Beauty. The play follows the fortunes and losses of Edward Kynaston, a male actor who specialized in female roles, as detailed in the witty Samuel Pepys’ diary.

Encased by Charles II’s decree that women can now play women’s roles on the stage, it’s a shocking time to be a male actor whose specialty is playing women. The central problem is that entire world if Kynaston (Richard Homan) is defined by what he does but can now no longer do: playing women well.

His rather famous (albeit mannered) Desdemona, which once put bums on seats and brought the house down, has been plagiarised down to the last affected gesture and detail by an actress of arguably limited talent: Mrs. Margaret Hughes (Pip Six).

Kynaston is beaten, robbed, and villified in the street. But it gets worse. Art and life are often intertwined and this loss of identity causes the most pain and confusion for Kynaston. His lover Villiars, Duke of Buckingham (Moko Smith) at first makes love to him only when dressed as a female character, then Villiars leaves him for a real woman.

Once lauded by the burlesque, gender-bending and masque-loving Monarchy, Kynaston is reduced to a drunken parody of his former self, performing in crass booze barns, being groped by anyone who enjoys a rousing dog fight and a flagon of gin.  Crikey. He’s redundant in every conceivable way.  

In the pits of despair, without a welfare state or benefactor to rely on, what’s a boy who cross dresses (but can’t anymore) to do? It’s what we all face at some point in our lives: change. Adapt. Transform into a ‘real’ and better actor who now understands truth at a deeper level.

Through new eyes, Kynaston channels stage one Method Acting and artfully coaches Margaret Hughes in how to play Desdemona as a ‘real’ woman in 5.2 from Othello. In doing so, he discovers his own masculinity, his own ‘real’ Othello. It’s a weird historical anachronism that brings Stanislavsky to life way before his time, yet it works terribly well.

Life is art, and vice versa, in this play. Only when we reveal our own deepest selves, the play suggests, can we reveal real truth in art that is known and felt. Only then can we connect with one another in ways that we recognise. Truth can be ugly, or beautiful, but revealing ourselves warts and all is where it’s at.

The play is certainly concerned with the nature of acting; what the theatre is, what its values are, how transient and fickle it was and is, and most crucially how we define ourselves in relation to what we do when change itself is the only constant entity. The latter is a key point that bears strong relation to an audience now, in this age of individual employment contracts where labour is disposable, and in an ever-changing world where the basis of our very survival as a species seems unknown.

Now, more than ever, we could look at how our predecessors have adapted to survive. And there are some fabulous parallels both within and without this play that relate history to fiction.  Charles II, who was himself exiled for 20 years in Holland, is an unlikely comrade on the topic of abandonment for Kynaston. Nell Gwynn is eventually dumped by Charles II too – "we are not always what we do" – she consoles Kynaston. But somehow this provides little relief. "Was I any good?" – as an actor, a King, a mistress, a lover, a human being – is the question that permeates this play. All strong and valid reasons to mount this play now.

The cast and crew are to be commended for their rendering of this fascinating play, and their passionate commitment to mounting such a work in the fantastic venue that is the WEL Energy Trust Academy of Performing Arts in Hamilton. But Richard Homan’s Kynaston is the glue that binds this production together. He is vulnerable, affected, justifiably effeminate and open to the elements that conspire against him. Homan is a talent to watch.

Moko Smith also deserves mention for his certain and sensual Villiars. Homan and Smith are both strong at being affected by others and this is key to making a rollicking yarn such as this really come to life, through empathy and regard for the text.

Long time Hamilton performers/ personalities Alec Forbes (disgruntled Thomas Betterton) and Graeme Cairns (the hapless Sir Charles Sedley) bring equal servings of wit and humour to the production. Brendan West (Charles II) plays well with Jessica Anderson (Nell Gwynn), although I would have expected Gwynn to have a cockney accent.

Pip Six (Margaret Hughes) is restrained at times – this releases to more vulnerability by the final scenes with Kynaston.  Louise Blackstock is a rather sweet but shy Maria, but as I questioned her sexual attraction to Kynaston, she seemed to be waiting in the wings for her chance to shine.  And a cast of players support the mainstays well.

The staging of this piece relies on prop and set items for each scene, although (despite efforts to the contrary) scene changes do notably hamper the flow of the production. The dynamic of the text moves fast, so I would suggest that the action needs similar volition. Too much time to change sets and props equates to lost energy. A simpler set and prop language would help this challenge enormously. The text itself is a rich enough environment to perform in without the need for extra accoutrements.

Live harpsichord played by several cast members is a terrific touch, and Gaye Poole is to be commended for observing this sensitive but important detail in her direction. Costumes capture the colour and period detail of the times; as a picky aside I wouldn’t mind them to be grubbier and more ‘worn’, like many of the characters. The streets of London look a tad too clean at times.  Lighting is well defined and carries the piece with depth. And a strong image brands the production on programmes and posters.

As a general observation I found myself wondering about characters’ objectives; applying a Stella Adler or Uta Hagen-inspired approach that the evolved Kynaston himself might call upon, the cast could consider destination as a way of avoiding the inevitable stage cluster. And of course this does away with the need to have props and set pieces to create the ever-changing environments in each scene. A text this clever needs to be met with strong intentions in every moment.

The night I saw the show there was an enthusiastic full house, and the cast answered this buzz. But this is a big puppy of a play to perform; at nearly 3 hours long, pace is an issue, and I would challenge the apparent lack of drive-through at times. However Gaye Poole has chosen an intelligent, vibrant text, and answered it with a company that is equally passionate about it. She and her company are to be supported for tackling this rich, ugly, and simultaneously beautiful play.
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