“Nothing Like A Dame: Four Actresses Unveil the Evolution of Beauty and Truth

Radtai Lokutarapol
5 min readJan 12, 2024

“Nothing Like a Dame” (2018) unfolds as a riveting exploration of style, cultural nuances, and the societal evolution within the hallowed halls of performance. Here, the spotlight gracefully alights upon four women of venerable years, devoid of noble birth or exceptional beauty, yet crowned as queens and anointed as “Dames.” A fascinating discourse ensues on the thespian tempest of Laurence Olivier, a virtuoso whose histrionics, often labeled as “ham,” proved a transformative force in the post-World War II English cultural renaissance.

Enter the narrative odyssey of Michael Saint-Denis, a French luminary, whose indelible imprint resonates in the founding echelons of the Old Vic Theatre School. This bastion of artistic erudition zealously propagated the tenets of performance, encompassing the sinuous dance of body language, mellifluous vocal prowess, and the honing of thespian finesse.

The epochal establishment of the Royal Court Theatre, orchestrated by the visionary George Devine, unfurls as a pivotal chapter. Its magnetic pull drew forth a renaissance, beckoning playwrights back to the limelight. A theater luminary, it was George Devine who wielded his influence to summon the quills of wordsmiths like David Hare, Harold Pinter, Simon Stevens, and a phalanx of emerging actors to grace the English stage with fresh verve.

As we traverse this theatrical odyssey, a nuanced transition unfolds from the gilded era of plays, epitomized by the works of Noël Coward. The theatrical pendulum swings towards audacious realms, where the traditional comedic tableau yields ground to narratives brimming with political bravado and unbridled exploration of sexuality. The specter of Joe Orton’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” and the provocative prose of David Hare emerges, unflinchingly dissecting themes of homosexuality and the seismic shifts in societal paradigms.

In essence, the passage paints a chiaroscuro canvas of English theater, weaving a narrative that traverses from the traditional to the audacious, mirroring the evolving pulse of society.

In the hallowed annals of English theatre, the birth of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, masterminded by Peter Hall on the Stratford-upon-Avon stage, marks an immersive exploration into the depths of the Shakespearean theatrical ethos. Simultaneously, it unveils a profound endeavor to fathom its relevance in the contemporary zeitgeist — a tapestry woven through a mere handful of decades post-World War II.

As the cultural landscape unfolded, the specter of Margaret Thatcher’s government cast its shadow, precipitating the demise of repertory theaters and metropolitan playhouses, bereft of state subsidies. The ensuing Vietnam War, spearheaded by the enigmatic Vanessa Redgrave, manifested in fervent protests, culminating in the dissolution of rallies and tumult. Moreover, the fissures in the Thatcherite regime, coupled with economic downturns, triggered a cultural renaissance, profoundly impacting the realms of drama and cinema, fostering an era of cultural abundance.

To underscore the affluence of the English side, a transatlantic gaze reveals, “Economically speaking, I think it was geared and operated to meet the needs of the middle class only, full of comedies and musicals.” This is the discerning insight of Kenneth Tynan, the preeminent critic and theatrical luminary of the era. A prominent figure, Tynan played a pivotal role in the development of the National Theatre of Great Britain under Laurence Olivier’s stewardship.

Reflecting on the socio-economic balance between the East End and the West End of London, Tynan remarked, “There is a balance between East End and West End in London. Ten years ago, it used to be like Paris. Something new, whether it be a play, film, emerged there. But since the era of President de Gaulle, it has started to conserve its traditions more. England now (1950s to 1970s) is a society that is open, leaning towards socialism, broad-minded about sexuality, making popular culture an enjoyable affair. I don’t think this country envies anyone anymore.”

With all four Dames living through the vibrant youth of England from the 1930s to the 1970s, when we speak of “performance,” it is not a perfunctory term of stoic observation but an epithet denoting style, cultural essence, and the societal evolution of the theatrical community in England. In the lexicon of these thespians, it transcends the overt literalism of a Stanley Fish or a Starbuck; it is a symbiosis of style, culture, and societal metamorphosis within the English dramatic enclave.

In the exploration of drama, which must continually seek renewed significance through the development of scripts, presentation techniques, and performance styles, the advent of the camera plays an indispensable role. This epoch represents a juncture where film takes center stage, profoundly influencing the theatrical community.

“I don’t think I’m pretty enough to play Cleopatra,” all four actresses concur about themselves. It’s because, in the days of yore, the women who dared to embody the “Queen” were statuesque, akin to goddesses. However, the lens has altered the perception within the actresses’ subjective paradigm. Beauty has taken on a new significance, as contemporaneously, the theatrical roles demand a departure from the norm. Women with petite frames akin to Judi Dench, slender figures reminiscent of Maggie Smith, and those who exude a regal countenance a la Joan Plowright have now found their places on the stage.

Michele Saint-Denis, at one point, humorously mused about Joan Plowright’s reluctance, saying, “Playing a queen is not easy.” But in this era, the ultimate aspiration is to have actresses embody queens. George Devine responded, emphasizing the timeliness of the four dames. They exist in a period where society is expansive and open to embracing novel ideas rather than adhering rigidly to the traditional “ideals.”

The actresses delve into a thoughtful discourse on the evolving notion of “beauty.” They share anecdotes about how the traditional paradigm has shifted, recounting personal experiences. “Back then, I played faster, and everything changed,” reflects one of them. Olivier’s advice to Joan Plowright echoes through time, emphasizing that one need not ascend the staircase; one can just walk in and reveal. The audience need not feel that it’s contrived; it’s all about creating art, finding ways to make it appear authentic. The essence lies in making the audience not question the authenticity of the performance.

The conversation delves into the varied perceptions of “truth” across different eras of performance. It’s akin to fashion, as they draw parallels between the fluidity of artistic expression and the dynamic nature of trends. The crux of the matter revolves around the relentless pursuit of truth, coupled with the personal struggle against societal preconceptions. The success of a theatrical or cinematic artist hinges not only on the personal endeavor but also on external factors such as economic conditions, societal shifts, and political landscapes. The zeitgeist influences how our audience, the viewers, perceive the world and what kind of ideological paradigm they hold.

In the denouement, the actresses are asked for words of wisdom for the younger generation. Their responses, simple yet profound, touch upon taking care of one’s body, not being overly serious about life, and pursuing one’s aspirations. The essence lies in not succumbing to societal pressures and, if one falters, not being afraid to explore new avenues.

Sometimes, truth is not a somber tale of tragic drama but rather an ordinary narrative. What is more intriguing than watching women adorned as queens is observing four ordinary ladies narrate lives that might be more extraordinary than the villagers in the eyes of others. In the grand tableau, they are but one component, offering a glimpse into a larger-than-life panorama.

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Radtai Lokutarapol

Radtai studied acting and screenwriting in UK, having worked in sales, marketing, and UX. His practice is to write creative non-fiction.