by Laura Ferguson
Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn centres on the titular character, the historical heroine of Charles II’s reign. An actress, a whore, the king’s mistress who rose from squalor to the glittering height of royal luxury. Ange Bickford does a marvellous job with this character injecting her with the life and verve I imagine captivated England and its king in the 1600s. Bickford’s straight-talking Nell is really delightful and her chemistry with Nell’s acting coach and stage partner, Charles Hart (Jon Pheloung) was very fun to watch. Pheloung plays Nell’s lover and acting mentor with class and panache, his gravitas adding weight to his appeal. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for King Charles II.
Richard Corney’s King Charles is well-spoken and certainly has the petulance that appears to come with being a king during this era of English history. There wasn’t any particular spark with Bickford though, leaving the Charles and Nell love-story lacking in conviction. Nell’s gumption was left limp against Charles’ lack of elegance. Charles’ rutting beast style of flirting, his grabbing and unsolicited touching of Nell, leaving me with a lip-curl rather than charm. The second-half of the play centres on this relationship between the king and Nell, and because there is a lack of urgency or emotionality between them, the act’s a drag. It’s too long and too chauvinistic. The ‘oh, but the king won’t like me if I’m pregnant’ fawning turns obsequious and dull. Nell Gwynn is two and a half hours long as is, and so this snail’s-pace second act isn’t too favourable on my gluteal muscles.
I suppose I should come clean: I am actually quite a fan of the historical figure Nell Gwynn. The stories about her are almost certainly apocryphal, but the different sources do tend to paint a similar picture. Nell Gwynn was a witty, beautiful woman. She paraded her sexuality and was comfortable enough to dismiss the stigma of being called a whore. However, I felt this play lost some of that strength of character. There is at least one line of dialogue where Nell emphatically states she was a whore not is a whore. This coming from the woman who supposedly, with jovial temperament, declared, ‘Good people you are mistaken, I am the Protestant whore!’ when addressing an angry mob intent on upsetting the carriage of Charles II’s Catholic mistress? I think not. Taking away Nell’s agency by allowing her to be ashamed of herself derides from the overall storyline that Nell was a woman who strove for more despite her low societal standing, patriarchy be damned!
Speaking of that Catholic mistress, the acting of Charli Gartrell and Catherine McMechan should be specially mentioned for their respective roles, French Louise de Keroualle and Queen Catherine. They both execute rapid and emotion-laden French and Spanish dialogue rather exquisitely, a rare feat and both were delightful in doing so. Often, other languages become wooden and blocky when performed, pronunciation usually trouncing vigour. I am glad their approach is more graceful. The full embodiment of the characters from Gartrell and McMechan allowing me to enjoy them in their own right, even if these parts are only included to boast Swale’s fluency in the languages. I say this since the script was not written in such a way that makes it very obvious what is being said. The word ‘prostitute’, in its foreign formats, has to do a lot of heavy lifting in order for enlightenment of the conversation to occur.
The writing to me seemed as if penned by what is termed a ‘baby feminist’ in such circles. Swale’s work seems to grasp upon one straw in the baleful of feminism and runs with that, dismissing its other facets. Sure, Nell is a strong woman and one of these new-fangled so-called actresses (men having historically played the parts of women until this period), but the play also contains slut-shaming, feminine jealousy, guilt and gender stereotypes. Some of these are there to ingrain us in the time period of course, but I wish it had gone one way or the other. As it is, this half-assing feels more like an insult to the sprinkles of feminism throughout than if the show had set its intent on being entirely historically-based.
One such example is how John Dryden is included, but Aphra Behn is not. Both were celebrated playwrights in their time, and Aphra Behn was a great friend of Nell Gwynn. The inclusion of Dryden and not a female playwright counterpart gives far more credence and importance to the male players of the show, even when it is supposed to be about a woman. This also occurs with Nell’s stage rival, Moll Davies, who is mentioned, yet not present within the play. The underlying message that a woman cannot become anything without the help of men felt disingenuous to what the spirit of the show set itself to be. Dryden (Matthew Darragh) is also pictured as needing Nell’s help for an original script, yet this coming from the author of Absalom and Achitophel, rings false, and makes me cringe.
The theatre upon which Dryden’s plays come to life was beautiful, though. Director Ewen Coleman also lent his hand at set design and the effect was brilliant. Specifically, the 17th century theatre not only encompasses the stage, but also halfway up the sides of the crowd seats. This touch meaning the king became part of our company, part of us, as the audience, while we watch Nell on stage. This really distinguishes Nell Gwynn from Nell Gwynn, the plays inside a play easy to keep track of, our stage becoming their stage effortlessly.
The end nears and Charles takes ill. The climax rears its head, but hits the snooze button and falls down again. Bickford’s solo emotional performance here making the only distinction that it was awake at all. It seems rushed and written with drama in mind while lacking drama physically, the lack of connectivity between the characters leaving me nonplussed. With Nell deciding to go back to her theatre company much to their delight, the conclusion ties itself up in non-historically accurate Restoration lace: a happy ending for Nell so we can end with a hurrah and not a harrumph.
I leave feeling conflicted and bum-numb. Was it enjoyable? Yes. Was the second half in need of editing? Yes. Did it have pithy remarks offering interesting historical titbits? Yes. Was it a corset-strangled version of feminism? Yes. Nell Gwynn is a bit of a contradiction, much like the woman herself. My friend enjoyed it, as did the audience. While I’m glad Nell Gwynn’s story has not been lost in the annals of time, it seems her fun, wit and strength became a little garbled along the way.
Nell Gwynn is currently showing at the Gryphon Theatre until Saturday 30 September. For ticketing information, visit the Wellington Repertory Theatre website.