Originally published on A Younger Theatre
Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn is a delightful jaunt through the life of one of the British stage’s most notorious actresses. Both breaking and adhering to the traditions of theatre, the play is thoroughly entertaining and feels both current and classic.
The content of the play leans heavily toward Gwynn’s stage life and, for the most part, forgoes a deeper examination of the grimier aspects of her history, rendering the image of Gwynn a particularly jolly one. From prostitute and orange fruit seller to the King’s trusted and loved mistress, Gwynn enjoys an epic rise from pauper to player to near princess, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s realisation of the character serves the legend well: full of wit and intrigue with a fierce spirit to match.
Mbatha-Raw is joined by a fantastic cast; actors playing actors, the cast make the craft appear both ridiculous and astoundingly complex, breaking down the fourth wall and involving the audience with frequent spurts. The technicalities of acting has long-served as a point of humour; it seems that a play within a play on stage, where the actors openly discuss how silly their craft is, is an ever-popular device. The production itself is assured and entertaining. Under Christopher Luscombe’s direction, the humour bobs along in a happy current for the majority of the play. Due to its iconic history, Shakespeare’s Globe is a fantastic venue to illicit audience involvement, and Luscombe does so masterly. The crowd-pleasing Nanny, Gwynn’s dresser (Amanda Lawrence), at one point snatches a beer from an audience member and downs the entire contents, in one confident gulp, to the delight of her adoring audience.
Disregarding the select macabre moments, Nell Gwynn is a crowd-pleasing comedy and, whilst Swales play may not be pushing the boundaries of theatre, it is certainly satisfying and entertaining to watch. With tongue in cheek delivery, Nell Gwynn pokes a stick at patriarchal prowess and conservative ruling. Achieved in the first instance by enlisting Gwynn as her heroin – a boisterous, beautiful prostitute turned actress turned King’s mistress – and including a gaggle of pitiful men, including a self-deprecating playwright and the droll Lord Arlington. We also bear witness to countless comments regarding austerity and our political and social landscape in its current hazy form.
Assured in its ability to entertain, Nell Gwynn’s legend should be further cemented after this complementary representation. Nell Gwynn is not a radical play, but it’s an affecting, entertaining one that is an utter delight.
Nell Gwynn is playing at The Globe Theatre until 17 October. For more information and tickets, see The Globe Theatre website. Photo by Tristram Kenton.