Nell Gwynn’s Back
It’s hard to emphasise how important Nell Gwynn once was in English history, as a folk figure, as a rags-to-riches Cinderella story, as an everywoman and as the first female actor star, she was called ‘pretty, witty Nell’ by Samuel Pepys and was always regarded as a living embodiment of the spirit of Restoration England.
Now she’s back in the theatre she so loved, as ‘Nell Gwynn’, by Jessica Swale transfers from the Globe to the Apollo, and is given a feminist rereading of history which views the reign of Charles II from the side of the orange seller he set up as his mistress. Swale treats her subject in truly populist rom-com style as a sort of distaff ‘Shakespeare in Love’, and it’s a real crowd-pleaser.
Her meeting with the king is glorious. Charles II wanders backstage, frightened the life out of the actors. ‘Oh God!’ they cry. ‘One rung down,’ Charles replies. He had a considerable number of mistresses through his life, both short affairs and committed arrangements. He also had a wife, here played as a shrieking Portuguese monster, and another outgoing mistress. Gwynn realises that if she allows the king’s affection her time too will swiftly pass – but it doesn’t. She becomes the love of his life. ‘Let not poor Nelly starve,’ are his deathbed words.
The author has woven plenty of established factual moments through the play, so it works better if you have a light knowledge of the subject beforehand, but it’s not necessary, and Gwynn is well served by the lovely Gemma Arterton, fresh from ‘Made In Dagenham’. The tone is somewhere between historical revisionism and a Carry On movie at times, with rather too many penis jokes, but it does manage to include this moment; Gwynn was one day passing through the streets in her coach, when the mob, mistaking her for her rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth, started shouting at her. Putting her head out of the coach window, she called, “Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore.’ She knew where she came from and was happy to remind people of it.
A cheer goes up around the Apollo Theatre when Charles II, a devoted fan, replies to an adviser who suggests that he’s frittered away funds on ‘oversized playhouses’, calling them ‘a valuable national asset.’ The audience cheers again when he adds, ‘What’s the point of having a country if its sapped of all joy? Down with austerity!’ It’s a sumptuous, generous play and yes, there’s even a King Charles spaniel puppy in it. Expect a film version.