Friday, 23 October 2015

Theatre Review | Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale

'They've disgraced our trade. Ruined our art. They've put a woman on the stage!'

I'm here with a little something different today. I don't tend to review plays mainly because I don't tend to see them that often; when I go to the theatre, which isn't as often as I might like, it's usually to see a musical or a ballet, but very rarely a play. In fact before I went to see Nell Gwynn I couldn't even remember when I last saw a play - probably during the last year of my undergrad when I went to see The Winter's Tale, around two or three years ago.

It was my birthday on the 10th October, and myself and three of my friends spent the weekend in London so we could go and see this play. I've been fascinated by Nell Gwynn for years; a 17th century woman who started out life as an orange-seller, then became an actress, and then became probably the most famous of Charles II's many mistresses. She was boisterous and cheeky and vivacious, and I was so happy to see someone had finally written about her and given her a story, and that the person to have done so was a woman.

Jessica Swale previously wrote the play Blue Stockings, so I was pretty confident that she could bring Nell to life, and with Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the starring role, how could she not? Mbatha-Raw is probably most famous for playing Dido Elizabeth Belle in the 2013 period film Belle, directed by Amma Asante. What I really loved about this is that Swale and Mbatha-Raw have been friends for years, much like Nell Gwynn's own good friendship with the 17th century writer, and spy, Aphra Behn.

Nell Gwynn (left) and Aphra Behn (right) were good friends; Aphra even dedicated one of her plays to Nell.
The play follows Nell from her discovery by Charles Hart, an actor and eventually one of Nell's lovers who introduced her to the stage, through to her meeting Charles II and her life afterwards when she tries to juggle being an actress on the stage while also being an actress at court, not to mention her strong feelings for the king.

The thing I loved most about this play? It was funny. And I don't mean 'ah yes I see what you did there' funny, I mean 'ow my ribs hurt' funny. Swale's script is fantastic - it's full of dirty jokes, as Renaissance plays so often were - and the actors were brilliant; Amanda Lawrence, who recently appeared in Suffragette, played the part of Nell's friend and confidante, Nancy, and she was a comedic genius. Some actors have a real talent for comedy, and she has it in waves. I also loved David Sturzaker's portrayal of Charles II - he was so much fun and, despite the rather ridiculous wigs men wore back then, really quite sexy.

I also appreciated that Swale didn't fail to mention the fact that Charles was never a one woman at a time kind of man. In fact I was rather surprised that the two of them declared their love for one another in the play, as I'd always thought of the two of them as having a 'friends with benefits' kind of relationship. Charles had other mistresses alongside Nell, and though Nell often teased them there are also accounts of her playing chess with his other mistresses. Ultimately, the real Nell knew what she was there for, and it's believed that Charles favoured her so much because she knew how to have a laugh. I imagine there was a very deep connection there - on his deathbed Charles asked his successor, his brother James II, to 'let not poor Nelly starve'. James kept his promise and Nell received £150 a year for the rest of her life, which is about £150,000 in today's money - but I don't think they were 'in love' in the traditional sense.

I'll admit I was a little bit disappointed that Aphra Behn didn't appear in the play. She's briefly mentioned, but she doesn't make an appearance; I suppose if she had Swale might have had to try and fit too much into one play, but considering the two of them were such good friends it would have nice to catch just a glimpse of her.

Before Nell Gwynn I'd never been to The Globe before and I'm so glad to have seen this play there. It's such an interactive theatre, especially if you stand by the stage. (We booked seats for the balcony so we could see everything instead, which was just as good!)

I just really enjoyed this play. If I could go and see it again I would, and I'm hoping it goes on tour so people who couldn't get to London can see it elsewhere. It's so bizarre to think that there was a once a time in which people thought that letting women act would bring about the end of theatre; one of the characters, whose name I've completely forgotten, is rather put out because he always plays the female roles, and when Nell joins their troupe he has something of a tantrum: 'No woman can play a woman as well as I can play a woman!'

There was also a fantastic line, delivered by the wonderful Amanda Lawrence to a character who is a playwright, which was probably my favourite line in the entire play: 'If women play women, you won't have to write them so feminine anymore.'

I really hope this play is performed again, and when it is I hope you get the chance to see it. It's wonderful!

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