Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is one of the leading actors of his day, particularly famous for his portrayal of female characters, predominately Desdemona in Othello. His loyal dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), aspires to perform in the legitimate theatre but is forbidden because of a law enacted by the Puritans prior to the restoration of the House of Stuart. Instead, she appears in productions at a local tavern under the pseudonym Margaret Hughes. Her activity aided by the novelty of a woman acting in public, which attracts the attention of Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths), who offers his patronage. Eventually she is presented to King Charles II (Rupert Everett).nnNell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper), an aspiring actress and Charles II's mistress, comes upon Kynaston ranting rabidly about women on stage and literally seduces Charles II into banning men from playing female roles. Kynaston, having gone through a long and strenuous training to play female roles finds himself without a guise by which to keep the attention of his lover, George Villiers (Ben Chaplin), the Duke of Buckingham, as the latter never had intentions to lead a homosexual life and Kynaston has lost the acceptance of London society which started to circulate rumors about their association. He is reduced to performing bawdy songs in drag in music halls, while Maria's career thrives, although her ability to emulate that of Kynaston falls short because, as she says, Kynaston never fights as a woman would do.nnCalled upon for a royal performance, Maria panics and her friends implore Kynaston for coaching during which she coaches him to develop his ability to regain a theatrical career in male roles. He agrees with the proviso replacing the company head Thomas Betterton in the role of the titular protagonist. Maria evolves as an acclaimed theatrical star.
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