Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale
(image taken from Google)
Why I Decided To Read It: I believe I first heard about this play sometime on the Shakespeare’s Globe social media. I thought it sounded interesting, but didn’t really think about it again until it came up on my Amazon suggestions. As I am always down for a comedy, history, or a play written by a woman (or a combination thereof), I decided to go for it.
Summary: When bold and flirtatious orange-seller Nell Gwynn steps in to help a struggling actor from being heckled, she never expects to be offered the chance of a lifetime. Thanks to the newly crowned King Charles II, women are being allowed to perform for the first time on English stages. Nell is a dynamite actress. With her wit, beauty, and natural charisma, the audiences fall in love with her, including Charles II. Given the opportunity to become a royal mistress, Nell must struggle between two very different worlds: the bawdy, whirlwind theatre community and the proper, political court. Can she juggle her two loves or will it all blow up around her?
Thoughts and Analysis: It’s fascinating to go into the world of Restoration theatre, which I feel tends to get skipped a bit in the greater theatrical narrative, except the French Restoration. It’s probably because the English Restoration for the most part isn’t that great. It’s covered in this play that the plays of this era were often adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (like King Lear with a happy ending) or fairly voyeuristic with the addition of actresses. The roles women were given weren’t great. They were often there just to be pretty and add sex appeal. And, you know, the practice of men paying to watch actresses change happened. Yikes.
But in this play, Nell Gwynn fights for her voice to her heard. She wants interesting, funny roles. She also just wants respect, which makes this play such an interesting mirror to entertainment and media today. At one point, Nell criticizes her company’s playwright for writing a woman who accepts a sub-par marriage proposal. She tells him women are people too and feel as much as men and have their own desires and needs beyond being married. After calling Juliet “a noodle”, she suggests Shakespeare’s wife should have a go at writing a play. This is made all the more powerful knowing a woman wrote this only a few years ago. It’s less of a “Hahaha, can you believe people during this time believed so little of women?” and more of a “You go girl!…Oh shit, we haven’t really changed much, have we?”. The plain fact of the matter is that women are still fighting for their voices to be heard in the entertainment industry- not just things like abuses we’ve suffered but also just letting our stories be told. While more and more women are becoming writers and directors (and sound designers and lighting designers and scenic designers and actors and etc.) it’s still nowhere near equal to men.
I know I’m probably making this play sound much more serious than it actually is. It’s pretty funny. There’s quite a bit of dramatic irony in jokes that are about how modern ideas will never work, but it’s not overdone. The actor who plays the lead women characters before Nell is a special favorite of mine because he’s so actor-y. All of the characters in the acting troupe are pretty fun overall and if you work in theatre you know all of their types. There’s also quite a bit of sexual innuendo and just full on sexual humor, but no actual nudity; Restoration theatre wasn’t considered high art at the time and Nell Gwynn grew up in a brothel, so it is understandable. I’m not offended by it, but if you’re looking to do this for community theatre in a conservative area, probably proceed with caution. It’s a pretty fair PG-13.
Because it is during Charles II’s reign, some Americans might have some issues understanding the political happenings during this play. It’s not heavily political and it does give some exposition, but some of the jokes might land a little better with some knowledge of the time period.
Favorite Character: Most of the characters in this play are fascinating and funny, especially the ones in the theatre. But props have to go to Nell herself. She is the clear star of the show and a talented, funny actress would have to play her.
Should You Read This?: If you’re interested in theatre history, history in general, or like a fun comedy from a POV you don’t normally get, go for it!
Final Thoughts: I would love to read more plays like this. It’s funny. It’s sweet. And it’s about women’s history in theatre. I also want to read more stuff by Jessica Swale.