Restoration actor Edward Kynaston, the study of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, was a very successful ‘boy player.’ But what happens when the fairer sexed thespians are allowed back onto the English stage to reclaim their roles?
It is England 1661 and actors like Kynaston are playing both male and female roles (sometimes in different productions of the same play) with equal success. Kynaston was, according to all reports, a beautiful man who made a convincing women on the stage and was thus blessed with the opportunity to play many of the plum dramatic female roles of the day. He was, in essence, the compleat actor! As director Chris Baldock explains, the play explores both gender and social issues with Hatcher’s customary frankness:
“It's such a love song to the theatre and acting. That's what drew me to it in the first place. There are many in-jokes that theatre folk will adore but will work on the general public just as well due to the way they have been seamlessly integrated into the script. On another level the play explores the theme of sexual identity and how society places such an importance on it. I don't want to give too much away but that theme is explored so beautifully and honestly by Hatcher. It gives both the role of Kynaston, and the play as a whole, a depth that is quite moving and poignant in my opinion.”
CFSB has had a tremendous run in the US and, of course, Britain since its publication 6 years ago. We have seen productions sprout around our fair land as well so it is no surprise to hear that auditions for this show are particularly well attended. It is also no surprise that the lead role of Kynaston must be carefully chosen and cultivated.
“I was so blessed that I had about 50 auditionees which, for 'straight' theatre, is fantastic. Some cast members are travelling for miles because they believe in the production and the role/s,” says Director Baldock. “I held the auditions about a month earlier than normal because 1) I wanted to make sure that I could cast the role of Kynaston successfully and 2) the actor cast needed extra time to immerse himself in the complexities of the role.”
“As much as the show relies on the entire cast to make it a success, ultimately if Kynaston is not right, then the production will fail. It's that big a role. It's a Maria Callas in Master Class, Salieri in Amadeus, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard type of role. He needs to convince the audience that he is the pre-eminent actor of his day, playing the main female roles in Shakespeare plays. He needs to be effeminate without being camp. He needs to have a physical presence that would attract both men and women. He needs to also be able to convince in his masculinity. He needs to be able to fully expose himself both physically and mentally and he needs to be a strong enough actor to ride the peaks and troughs of Kynaston's journey.”
“The challenges of the role are one of the main reasons the play has never been attempted until now, I believe. However I have been blessed to have found just the right actor in Scott Middleton – an actor whose talent is matched by his amazing work ethic and humility. You couldn't meet a nicer guy and to have your leading man ego-free and ready to soak up whatever is thrown at him, is a massive blessing and all too rare. We sat down right at the beginning of the process and discussed the challenge facing him and, although I think I scared the bejesus out of him, he has risen to everything I have hurled at him head-on. He is going to be absolutely stunning. The great thing is that Scott has lead by example and his wonderful supporting cast have created their own pieces of magic that match him every step of the way.”
Alumni of the Ballarat Arts Academy, Scott Middleton as Kynaston, has certainly been set a challenge by Baldock who is renown for inspiring his actors to aim for nothing less than the stars. “I am trying my best to fully realise this character, as we always do, but at the same time I feel the pressure of knowing that If I don't succeed, the play as a whole will suffer, and not only will I have let myself down, I will have let down Chris, the whole outstanding cast and the dedicated crew. No pressure!” quips a humble Middleton.
“The technicality of the role at times is the biggest hurdle, trying to grapple multiple things at once. For example, in one scene he is a man, playing a woman who is disguised as a man. So I'm trying to find the voice and physicality, remember the lines, the blocking, the accent, work with the costume as well as take Chris's direction and all the while trying to bring some conviction and truth to the whole thing! And the frustration of not being able to get all of these things right first time drives me insane! Haha! But when I do eventually manage to get most of them all at once, it is a very rewarding feeling. I'm hoping to feel this way a bit more as we progress!”
According to some reports, female actors first appeared on the English stage in 1629 but were not particularly well received by the general public who were accustomed to having their female characters portrayed by men. Women would appear again between the late 1620’s and early 1660’s but it would not be until King Charles II changed the law to allow women to act that male actors like Kynaston would feel the ruin. One such actor was Nell Gywnne, fortuitously for her, a long time mistress of the King.
“For Nell, her journey throughout the play is a little sad but one that makes her stronger, explains actor Maggie Chrétien plying Nell. “She is a live-wire, she is within a world that does not totally understand her and one that underestimates her and that is how she thrives within it. She is a beautiful character, one that never forgets where she has come from and one that never forgets the people she has met along the way. The play itself focuses around identity and sexuality. For me personally I love the gusto of Nell, she knows what she wants and uses what tools she has to get it. I love playing a role like that and hopefully a little of her spirit stays with me.”
From all reports, this is a play NOT to be missed. Audiences will be thoroughly entertained – along with having a good chuckle be prepared to succumb to the drama. Says Baldock: “This is one of those rare plays that has everything. It's definitely one of the funniest plays I have read in a long time – and those who know me will know I don't think there are very many good comedies out there. But it also becomes incredibly dramatic and moving in places and I hope the audience jumps on the roller coaster with us and enjoys the trip. They may like to think they have been educated as well, as many of the characters are based on real-life figures. But truth be told, Mr Hatcher takes massive liberties with historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment. For instance, he presents the birth of realistic acting in the theatre when in reality it didn't happen for at least for another hundred years. But it makes for a bloody wonderful ending to the play!”
Compleat Female Stage Beauty plays at Williamstown Little Theatre from April 19 – May 5