By Jessica Swale
Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark, London
Sunday 4th October 2015, 1 pm
CAST (as printed)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Nell Gwynn
Anneika Rose – Rose Gwynn, her sister
Sarah Woodward – Old Ma Gwynn, Nell’s mother, a brothel madam
Amanda Lawrence – Nancy, Nell’s dresser and confidante
Sasha Waddell – Lady Castlemaine, Charles’ most ambitious mistress
Sarah Woodward – Queen Catherine, Charles’ Portuguese wife
Sasha Waddell – Louise de Keroalle, Charles’ French mistress
David Sturzaker – Charles II, The King. Obviously.
Jay Taylor – Charles Hart, leading actor in the King’s Company
Richard Katz – Thomas Killigrew, Manager of the King’s Company
Greg Haiste – Edward Kynaston, Actor in the King’s Company, plays the women’s parts
Graham Butler – John Dryden, playwright
David Rintoul – Lord Arlington, Charles II’s advisor
Angus Imrie- Ned Spigget, Actor in Training in the King’s Company
George Jennings, Stiofan O’Doherty – actors, courtiers, servants etc
Stage set before the show
So here we are in 2015 in a faithful reproduction of an Elizabethan / Jacobean / Caroline public theatre, watching a brand new play about Nell Gwynn, who was born in either 1650 (as she claimed) or 1642 (which some think more likely). She was an orange seller, born in a brothel, then one of the first actresses on the English stage, and the mistress of King Charles II and mother of two of his children. His final words were ‘Let not poor Nelly starve!’
The public theatres closed permanently in 1642 when the puritans forbade plays, and on the restoration of Charles II in 1660, just two theatres were opened, both by royal patent, both on the north bank of the Thames. The Drury Lane Theatre (with the King’s Company) had an apron stage and a pit, though with benches not standing. This is where the real Nell Gwynn acted and made her name. She would never have seen a public theatre like the Globe, but in some odd sort of “It’s all 17th century” way it all looks appropriate.
The other anomaly, at least for the Globe, is having a famous TV actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, playing the lead and getting the kind of newspaper publicity usually reserved for major films. To be fair, she was also Ophelia to Jude Law’s Hamlet in the Donmar West End Season. And the best Ophelia I have seen.
The pedigree of those involved was the attraction. This is Jessica Swale’s third play for Shakespeare’s Globe / Wanamaker Playhouse, and Christopher Luscombe directed Love’s Labours’ Lost / Love’s Labours’ Won at the RSC last year, which was my “Best classical production of 2014.” Nell Gwynn is playing with Richard II with several of the cast involved in both. On this Sunday it meant David Sturzaker taking a major comedy role as Charles II here, getting a break of under three hours and going back on in the serious role of Bolingbroke in Richard II the same evening. I suppose they were both related and both kings.
The immediate comparison conceptually is Shakespeare in Love, which happened to be my “Best modern production of 2014” so the superlatives are already falling thick and fast. This play is mainly set on the apron stage of the Drury Lane Theatre, with the Royal Box above, and Nell Gwynn’s dressing room against the stage right pillar. So the whole thing is designed to fit the apron stage at The Globe, with audience interaction the key. It starts with Ned Spigget, ‘actor in training’ starting off a John Dryden prologue, screwing it up, and being heckled from the pit. Nell, with her basket of oranges emerges from the pit to defend him. The real water / cold drinks sellers in the pit had oranges on their trays too for this production.
Nell Gwynn and Charles Hart (Jay Taylor)
Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) is the leading actor in the King’s Company, and invite her up on stage and begins to tutor her in the art of acting … the entire play is filled with jokes and asides about acting. We are at a crucial stage in theatre history. Charles II has returned from his exile in France and wants to see women on the London stage as they were already in Paris … apparently the restart of English theatre followed earlier traditions of male actors playing female roles. Their rivals, the Duke’s Men at Lincoln’s In have already introduced a female actor, and Charles Hart has the idea of Nell joining the King’s Company. This outrages Edward (Greg Haiste) who is the resident specialist in woman’s parts, with his “linen tits”. There is a hilarious discussion, especially on the “language of the fan” on stage.
Nell Gwynn (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with fan
Edward throughout is our “Actor” with a capital A, continually trying to build his part, fervently trying to discuss motivation and back story with Killigrew, the manager / director (Richard Katz). In the second half he has a long speech on the wood used for the door on his entry for one line. The back story of the wood will significantly alter his delivery. The other member of the company is John Dryden (Graham Butler) their resident playwright. The funny stuff like writing a version of The Tempest called The Enchanted Island where Prospero has two daughters, Miranda and Dorinda, is all true. As is their rival company’s rewrite of King Lear with a happy ending (though it was not called The Comedy of King Lear which it is here!) Edward’s delight when he finds out there are two major female roles in The Enchanted Island is a joy to behold.
tHe King’s Company
What Nell brings to the company is sauciness, directness, singing (her dirty ditties are a delight) and fabulous dancing, skirts swirling. OK, she can’t read which makes learning parts a struggle, but she can improvise. It is easy to focus on Gugu Mbatha-Raw who has it all … extreme beauty, singing, dancing, acting, a gift for comedy, though the reason it works so well is the ensemble playing of all of “the actors”. The major female members of the company are Nell’s sister, Rose, and her dresser, Nancy. Nancy (Amanda Lawrence) almost steals the show in Part Two when she has to replace Nell in a play. Fortunately much of the humour was facial expression and body language because the whole audience was roaring with laughter and you wouldn’t have heard any lines. A great play has great “supporting roles” and Edward and Nancy must be two of the best this year. So much is “knowing” on theatre such as in the final tableaux where Nancy is the third person to stab themself. The first two use a knife and a sword, but Nancy had an inch long knife. I immediately thought of several extremely naff “stabbing Polonius through the curtain” scenes in recent Hamlets with silly little knives.
Charles II (David Sturzaker) with his spaniel, Oliver Cromwell
Nell lampoons the French mistress’s hat. She is watching.
L to R: Ned Spiggett, Nell Gwynn, Nancy her dresser
We haven’t even got to the gentry. Charles II enters quite a long way into the first half. The costumes for the court are extravagant and first-rate. Arlington (David Rintoul) is Charles’s minister and advisor (and against Nell Gwynn). His dress is 1666 at its most elaborate and he has the stance to go with it. We have Queen Catherine berating Charles in Portuguese. Lady Castlemaine and Louise de Keroualle are two of Charles’s aristocratic mistresses (both played by Sasha Waddell). Louise has a long diatribe against Nell Gwynn in French, which Nancy then translates. Sarah Woodward doubles as Queen Catherine then as Ma Gwynn, Nell’s drunken brothel owning mother with clay pipe. Her cameo involves grabbing a beer glass from someone in the pit and draining it in one.
Ma Gwynn (Sarah Woodward) with Nell, now the King’s mistress
The Charles II / Nell courting scenes are very funny … Nell being the first person he’s met who dos not grovel. Charles gets instant applause for some lines too, ‘Playhouses are a national asset,’ and ‘What’s the point of having a country, if it’s sapped of all joy, Arlington? Down with austerity!’ Yes, I bought the script on the way out. There was so much laughter that I missed some very funny lines. Another major laugh and “Aah!” was Charles II’s spaniel, named Oliver Cromwell.
One of the excellent aspects is that it’s well researched. Some of Nell’s funniest lines are from the historical person … as when her coach was stopped with the crowd shouting about “The Catholic whore” (Louise) and Nell said “No, I’m the Protestant whore.” I have a strong feeling that names and theatrical history are generally right.
My companion rates it “The best production I’ve ever seen at the Globe” and felt 5 stars insufficient. It is up there with Shakespeare in Love as a delicious view of theatre from the theatrical company point of view. I’d noted it in the interval as ‘Shakespeare In Love 65 years later’ and that’s no put down.
Hurry along while you can if you’re in London. You can stand on the day for £5 (another fact that gets a great line in the script), and while standing can be exhausting, in this play the time will fly through. I’d be most surprised if the Globe don’t revive it a year or two down the line. The cast seemed irreplaceable, but reading the script it’s all intrinsically good. They should store the props and cosines with care!
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Richard II – Globe, 2015 – half the cast are in the Globe production
Fallen Angels, by Noel Coward, Salisbury Playhouse (as director)