Jessica Swale’s comedy about the life of Nell Gwynn, the first female ‘star’ of the English-speaking theatre, was first seen at The Globe Theatre, London. This production transferred to the West End where it was a big ‘hit’, winning the 2016 Olivier Award for ‘Best New Comedy’. Subsequently, it has been performed in many places throughout the world. Finally, thanks to Megan Dansie and The Stirling Players, there is an opportunity to see this absolutely delightful play in Adelaide.
Why does it seem this play is so successful today, wherever it has been performed? One reason may be that this ‘feminist-angled’ theatrical romp of a bio-play is essentially a love story, a 'love poem' to, about and for the theatre. In particular, the dramatic narrative, structure and style essentially follows the Cinderella 'rags to riches' story, one of the most popular and constantly re-invented stories that have a universal appeal throughout the world.
While it is about the love of the theatre, in another sense it is a story about hope. No wonder, then, that this play has been loved by so many. It is a theatrical ‘celebration’, not an in-depth drama, about a truly remarkable, special, unique and inspiring woman, Nell Gwynn – not only first female 'star' of the English theatre but also beloved by King Charles II as his mistress, as well as by virtually everyone else.
The play begins and ends in the theatre, in particular London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. This was the London theatre in which The King’s Men played, one of the two officially sanctioned theatre companies in ‘Restoration’ London at the time, and under the direct patronage of King Charles II himself.
We first meet the character of Nell Gwynn (Emily Currie) selling oranges in the theatre auditorium whilst a performance is endeavouring to take place on stage. The feisty Nell takes on a male heckler and demolishes him with her ‘street-wit’, to the gratitude of the besieged players. She has attracted the attention of Charles Hart (Brad Martin) who after the performance, invites Nell on-stage. What follows is an hilarious scene about acting, including demonstrative gesturing, that sets the tone and style for the rest of the play.
This scene, however, does have an element of historical truth about the real Nell Gwynn, whose extraordinary life is partly clouded by myth. Charles Hart was the leading player for The King’s Men in the early ‘Restoration’ theatre. It is true, that Charles Hart was Nell Gwynn’s teacher as well as her first lover from the world of the theatre. The first part of this play deals with Nell’s rise to fame and her relationship with Charles Hart.
The primary voice of opposition to Nell is that of Edward Kynaston (Dylan O’Donnell). The real Edward Kynaston was also one of the ‘Restoration’ theatre’s major attractions, specialising in playing female roles, as was the norm. Men played the female roles prior to the ‘Restoration’ theatre. The coupling of Nell Gywnn and Charles Hart, professionally and privately, is given full-throttle expression in the play – and then King Charles II (Peter Davies) sees her and everything changes.
In this play political intrigues are essentially personified in the character of Lord Arlington (Philip Lineton) who is an opponent of the lowly born Nell Gwynn. Arlington supports Charles II’s other aristocratic ‘mistresses’, initially Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine (Alicia Zorkovic) and later Louise de Keroulle, Duchess of Portsmouth (Rose Harvey), both of whom Nell triumphs over – but not without a cost to her personal and professional life.
As may be gathered, the scope of this ‘celebration’ of the life of Nell Gwynn is rather broad, and this production rollicks along at a quick but always engaging pace – thanks to the skillful direction of Megan Dansie.
It is broad, but also detailed with true historical references, and gives certain important people involved in the life of Nell Gwynn and Charles II a voice that hitherto has been neglected. This includes Charles Hart as well as Charles’s Portuguese wife, Queen Katherine of Braganza. In one explosive scene, Queen Katherine argues with Barbara Villiers. The scene is memorable because Queen Katherine speaks entirely in Portuguese, and is played with impressive force by Karyn Fuller. Ms Fuller also plays Nell’s brothel-owning drunk of a mother who may or may not meets her end due to the sinister political forces that seek to remove Nell from the Court and Charles II.
This truly engaging play and production places at its centre the romantic love of the theatre, as well as Nell’s romantic relationships with Charles Hart and King Charles II. This love is genuine and true.
The success of this play, however, is totally dependent upon the actress playing Nell Gwynn. This production succeeds because of Emily Currie’s passionate, committed, consistent, engaging and vivacious Nell Gwynn.
The strong Stirling Players ensemble, which notably includes Peter Davies as the charming, regal, and loving Charles II, supports her completely and admirably.
I thoroughly recommend this production of Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn – a truly delightful romp of show celebrating the life of Nell and the love of the theatre.