Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale
Starring: Gemma Arterton
Theatre: Apollo West End, London
Dates: 4 February – 30 April
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
I’m a massive theatre fan and try to catch many of the West End shows when possible. I’ve managed to watch most of the classics including Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Wicked (in NYC no less!) and many more. Similar to YA fiction, it is one of my indulgences and something I’m quite passionate about so I’m going to try and feature more of my visits on this blog as a nice way to intersperse the book reviews.
I was lucky enough to get tickets to previews of Nell Gwynn earlier this month. The play, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and directed by Jessica Swale, has transferred from Shakespeare’s Globe to the West End for a limited season of 12 weeks with Gemma Arterton taking over the helm from Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Nell Gwynn is based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name, and is about the true-life story of orange-seller and prostitute turned actress and King’s mistress. In the play, Nell is discovered by actor Charles Hart who introduces her to the King’s Company, a theatre group, and with whom she undergoes training to become a leading female actress. Charles II is in attendance during one of her performances and upon seeing Nell he becomes besotted. As she begins a relationship with the King, she is forced by his chief minister to choose between Charles and her successful career on stage and her decision has far reaching consequences for both the King’s Company and her family.
I was quite excited about the play as it stars Gemma Arterton in the titular role and after seeing Arterton excel in feisty roles in movies including Quantum of Solace, Tamara Drewe and St. Trinian’s, I was interested to see how she would play the ultimate historical anti-heroine Nell Gwynn. Needless to say, Arterton delivers this character really well and does justice to Gwynn’s playful, impetuous attitude as well as showing the caring and ambitious girl underneath the persona. Gemma Arterton’s natural cheeky demeanour meant that you almost forgot she was playing a character. The play had a few upbeat and catchy song and dance numbers (some of which I still find myself humming three weeks on!) and Arterton seemed like a natural performing on stage.
The supporting cast were also fantastic but my favourite had to be Nancy, the theatre tailor and Nell’s dresser – she easily had some of the best lines and quips along with the overenthusiastic and over-dramatic Kynaston who believed he could play a female part better than a woman. Watching the romance develop between Nell and the usually confident and unflappable Charles II, who became flustered in her presence, was charming – it remained true to the fact that whilst Nell was Charles II’s mistress, there was a genuine and life-long affection between the two figures.
The play is set during Restoration England when Charles II was on the throne and the country enjoyed a resurgent cultural scene following the demise of Thomas Cromwell and his staid regime. As such, the play features colourful characters, vivacious outfits and bawdy humour. As Gwynn started out life as a prostitute and then went on to be the King’s mistress, the humour was incredibly funny with risqué jokes and double entrendres abounding that had the audience in hysterics. The costumes and set design weren’t elaborate – since approximately half of the play is set in a theatre, there wasn’t much needed to physically alter the stage. The production instead kept the cast centre stage and didn’t let detailed sets detract from the drama. Gemma Arterton’s costumes were fabulous, her transformation from a poor prostitute to the King’s mistress is beautifully reflected in her outfits.
Despite the progressive art and cultural scene, the play is set against the backdrop of the introduction of the first stage actresses – a really radical notion at the time. The play has an overt and powerful feminist theme which is handled deftly by Jessica Swale. Arterton’s playful interpretation of the character meant it didn’t feel heavy handed but the audience still left with the message clear, that despite her humble beginnings, in a male-dominated world, Gwynn made herself a force to be reckoned with and was able to make difficult but independent decisions for herself and her own happiness.
If you’re up for a laugh along and some catchy song and dance numbers all wrapped up in a powerful feminist message, I would urge you to go and watch Nell Gwynn during its limited season run – there’s a reason why it transferred to the West End… 🙂