The story of Charles II’s earthy mistress is brought to colorful, ebullient life at Shakespeare’s Globe in Nell Gwynn, a new play by Jessica Swale. Starring an impressive and aptly radiant Gugu Mbatha-Raw (best known for the films Belle and Beyond the Lights) in the title role, the production is an enjoyable crowdpleaser, big on backstage shenanigans and light feminist revisionism, like a cross between Funny Girl and Shakespeare in Love, but with periwigs. Although executed with the polish and professionalism one expects from the Globe and director Christopher Luscombe, there’s not a lot of Stoppardian smarty-pants subtext or subtlety here. But as Carry On Courtesan-style fluffy fun, it’s perfectly serviceable.
A legendary British figure whose actual history is shrouded in mystery and contradiction, Nell Gwynn (her name’s spelling is as uncertain as her 1650-ish birth date) is the original bad girl done good, a tabloid heroine before tabloids were invented. A former prostitute-turned-orange seller, she became one of the first female actors on the British stage during the Restoration. Royal rake King Charles II fell hard for her charms and made her his favorite lover, and her elegant curves and mischievous wit were immortalized by painters, balladeers and writers for centuries to come.
A comic romp that’s maybe a bit thin on ideas but thick with double entendres.
Swale’s play nimbly condenses all that backstory into a zippy two-and-a-half-hour running time with intermission, kicking off logically enough with Nell’s big break into showbiz. She’s first met working the pit with her basket of fruit, and her quick-witted back chat is soon noticed by Charles Hart (Jay Taylor), the lead actor in the King’s Company, a troupe managed by Thomas Killigrew (Richard Katz). Aware that a rival theater down the road is packing them in by featuring a real female onstage, Killigrew agrees after urging from Hart to try Nell out in their next production, much to the chagrin of the company’s leading cross-dressing specialist Edward Kynaston (Greg Haiste, giving great hissy fits without overdoing the camp). Nell and Hart briefly become lovers.
Nell is illiterate and so struggles to memorize the lines written by in-house playwright John Dryden (Graham Butler), who admittedly labors to finish writing them on time. Despite opening night jitters and a slightly squeaky stage voice (Mbatha-Raw ensures it sounds stronger later as Nell’s confidence and skills grow), she becomes an overnight sensation, thanks in part to an impromptu rendition of a cheekily smutty song.
Soon, the king (dishy Globe-regular David Sturzaker) comes calling backstage, and after a lot of coy haggling Nell gets him to agree to a £500 per year allowance, an apartment at the palace and all the silk dresses the royal purse can afford in exchange for her, ahem, favors. Real affection and respect grows into a sturdy love between them, which bears fruit in a son and a long alliance that sees them through plenty of court machinations to get rid of Nell, political turmoil over succession issues, and Nell’s on-off relationship with the stage.
Mindful that the story of a poor girl who screws her way to the top isn’t exactly what today’s audiences would consider an empowering narrative, Swale’s play takes pains to paint Nell as a proto-feminist class warrior whose innate honesty and instincts about what makes people tick keep her afloat. She’s the one who gets to argue with Dryden that the female characters should be complex, headstrong and proactive, not merely decorative. (Swale gives her a great rant about what a “proper noodle” Shakespeare’s Juliet is for killing herself so young.) It’s Nell that claims audiences want more than just one-note boy-meets-girl stories.
And so on a meta-level the play creates setbacks and obstacles for her and Charles to overcome, including rival lovers such as scheming Lady Castlemaine and French import Louise de Keroualle (both played with aplomb by Sasha Waddell). The latter is taken down with a song in French on stage and a hat the size of a stage door, while Nell makes similarly quick (if less historically plausible) work out of meddling courtier Lord Arlington (David Rintoul), getting him demoted to Master of Dog Walking. As if aware that the play is at risk of seeming frictionless and facile, Swale adds in more serious scenes between Nell and her sister Rose (Anneika Rose), who stands by her sibling throughout but comes complaining when Nell starts to neglect her and their aged brothel-keeping mother (Sarah Woodward).
However, it’s the clowning that really makes this production sing, and if the humor is perhaps a little too Punch and Judy in its emphasis on the sausage jokes, it’s clear Luscombe has spent many hours with the company honing the timing to perfection, ensuring every double take and pause for effect lands on target down to the nanosecond. Serving this project with particular skill is Amanda Lawrence, stealing every scene she’s in as the company’s hapless seamstress, who at one point is pressed into performing despite her inability to deliver a single line correctly.
The design by Hugh Durrant gussies up the usually austere Globe stage with mismatched drapes and haphazardly strewn flats to suggest a shambolic backstage atmosphere — although the venue appropriately evokes a world that was only some 70-odd years on from Shakespeare’s heyday. Thoughtful work has been put into the use of color palettes for the costumes, marking a contrast between the pale, faded hues favored by the acting company and the darker jewel tones of the courtiers, with Nell almost always in “buff” or flesh tones, as if she’s naked even when clothed.
Oddly, given the play is about a woman whose sexuality, perceived and actual, was so much a part of her success, the show is peculiarly lacking in body contact between the actors beyond a few chaste kisses. Mbatha-Raw compensates, however, by projecting a playful sensuality throughout, a delight in her own beauty and youthfulness that somehow never feels smug or obnoxious. If she’s a little less persuasive as a star in the making in the show’s first half, by the end she comes into her own with swagger and smarts to spare.
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Sturzaker, Jay Taylor, Anneika Rose, Amanda Lawrence, Richard Katz, Greg Haiste, Graham Butler, David Rintoul, Angus Imrie, Sarah Woodward, Sasha Waddell
Playwright: Jessica Swale
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Set & costume designer: Hugh Durrant
Music: Nigel Hess
Choreographer: Charlotte Broom
Voice & dialect: Martin McKellan, Alex Bingley
Presented by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre