Nell Gwynn at Shakespeare’s Globe
It is 1660. King Charles II is flirting with the French, British theatre is being restored and Nell Gwynn is out on Drury Lane selling oranges for sixpence. Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw and playwright Jessica Swale (Blue Stockings) transport this extraordinary tale to the remarkable stage at Shakespeare’s Globe. It is a charming check of Nell Gwynn, a prostitute, actress and royal concubine, performed prosperously with much laughter and glee.
Christopher Luscombe directs and clearly has a strong suit in comedy. Scenes range from fun and games at the local theatre to soft love affairs and mildly political tribunals, each involving Gwynn along her speedy trajectory. The play within a play riddle (a proponent of British theatre) embellishes the comic effect, but dissipates any feelings of authenticity. Swale is clever at getting ironic laughs out of her dialogue, exploited by the hindsight of a 21st-century audience. Unsurprisingly, there is little emotional weighting to any of the material on display. This is not a drama or history but rather a sideshow of sexual innuendos and savvy jokes.
The ensemble is rife with charged performances, and even though explicit musings and a blending of diction becomes cloudy, the overall presence of the cast is visceral. From Greg Haiste as a fired-up female actor to Amanda Lawrence as the helpless dressmaker, there is a full involvement of talent. David Sturzaker is suspiciously straight-laced as Charles II but plays an intriguing hand nonetheless. Mbatha-Raw is excitable, but arguably better suited to the screen (she shone in Amma Asante’s Belle).
The story deserves to be told, not least from a feminist perspective, but also to show that a tumultuous period can serve to inform the present. The play lacks in the latter, choosing a dip in and out approach and shying away from the harsh realities that no doubt faced these characters at that time. The surface is thick, but the underbelly is shallow; jokes are a priority and little else is accomplished. It is very funny and will be remembered as funny, but it won’t feature in the ranks of iconic heroines.
Nell Gwynn is on at Shakespeare’s Globe from 19th September until 17th October 2015, for further information or to book visit here.