Jessica Swale’s award winning Nell Gwynn, based on the real historical figure, follows the rags to riches story of an orange seller who became one of Britain’s first actresses and mistress of King Charles II. Packed to the brim with captivating performances, wonderfully lewd jokes, 17th century style song and dance and as much meta-theatre as any drama-lover could wish for, it is one of the best things I’ve seen this year.
The King’s Theatre was a wonderful venue for it, the set mirroring the theatre’s lavish interior and the play beginning with an actor heckled by women from the little used boxes on either side of the stage. The meta-theatrical nature of the script is enforced from the get-go as we are made to understand in the first scene that the stage is the set and we are watching actors performing and rehearsing as if to an empty audience.
I knew it was going to be a comedy but was not prepared for how uproariously funny Nell Gywnn is. I threw my head back with laughter so ferociously at one point that I found myself looking up at the King’s gorgeous new ceiling. The humour is multi-faceted and works on so many different levels, from the more intellectual historical jokes to slapstick, endless double entendre and even the occasional toilet humour. Nothing falls flat and the comedy gives the whole performance a fantastic energy, for which credit must go in equal parts to the superb writing and delivery.
All of the performances are glowing but some deserve particular mention. Esh Alladi is brilliant as a rather dramatic Edward Kynaston, the actor known for playing women’s parts who is highly resentful at the introduction of female players. Sam Marks as Charles Hart gets to shine in the first few scenes, in particular in his first acting lesson with Nell right at the start, which is a masterpiece of physical work perfectly playing on the old acting techniques of the time. Ben Righton creates an arrogant yet likable King Charles II and Laura Pitt-Pulford is perfect for the titular role, performing with precision and sass.
This is a play which, by exploring the start of gender equality in theatre, communicates a wider feminist message. As Nell puts it, women are just as tangled up and complex as men and should be represented as such. The scene where Nell is introduced to the thespians as a possible new performer is an entertaining yet poignant discussion of gender, a highlight being when one of the women exclaims ‘We’ll be writing plays next!’, a clear meta-theatrical reference by Swale to herself.
The visuals are incredibly satisfying, set dripping in gold and every actor clad in gorgeous period dress. The costume is a delectable treat for the senses, from the amusingly outfitted Edward Kynaston, fit with fake breasts, to the ornate dresses of the courtiers and the many extravagant wigs (for which there are a specific Head of Wigs and Wigs Assistant credited in the programme). Lighting was used minimally and affectively and added to the general gilded glow of the performance.
The rich script, strong performances and period design provided all the satisfaction of watching brilliantly done Shakespeare without the language barrier. The music and dance was also wonderful and added to the utterly indulgent feel of the thing. I would highly recommend catching Nell Gwynn on its tour to anyone who is a fan of theatre and feminism, and who can handle an innuendo or twenty!