Nell Gwynn (play)

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Nell Gwynn is a play by the British playwright Jessica Swale, begun in 2013[1] and premiering at Shakespeare's Globe from 19 September to 17 October 2015.[2] It deals with the life of Nell Gwynn, mistress of Charles II, and her part in the theatre of the 17th century. Gugu Mbatha-Raw played the title role in the production debut.[3]

Plot[edit]

Hearing Nell Gwynn heckle at the playhouse, Charles Hart decides to train her as an actress, just before women are first allowed on the London stage - the pair also become lovers. When Charles II grants permission for women to act, Nell joins Hart in the King's Company. Her admission to the Company is backed by its writer John Dryden, director Thomas Killigrew, and most of the actors except Edward Kynaston, who had previously played the company's female parts. Charles II continues his affair with Lady Castlemaine although his queen Catherine objects. Soon afterwards Charles sees Nell onstage and is greatly attracted to her. He visits her backstage and the pair begin an affair, which eventually leads to a rupture between her and Hart.

Nell also faces threats from Lady Castlemaine and from Charles' chief minister Arlington, who try to get her to give up Charles, or to choose between him and the theatre. These culminate in a violent attack on Nell's sister Rose, instigated by Arlington. Instead of giving up Charles, Nell moves into apartments provided by the king. She is visited by her sister Rose and their mother Ma Gwynn. Nell attends fewer rehearsals, leading to tensions with the Company. A French diplomatic party arrives and Arlington orchestrates Charles into taking Louise de Keroualle as his mistress. When Charles and de Keroualle attend the theatre, Nell publicly pokes fun at the French woman.

Rose visits Nell at court alone to announce Ma's death and berate Nell for not visiting them. On Nell's advice Charles dissolves the Exclusion Bill Parliament, including Arlington. Nell takes her revenge by having him appointed as the royal dog-walker. Nell and Charles live together happily, but Charles suffers an apoplectic fit (stroke) whilst they are playing croquet, dying soon afterwards. Nell is excluded from his deathbed. Soon afterwards, she decides to return to King's Company full-time, reconcile with Hart and appear in Dryden's Tyrannick Love. As she is out of practice, she gives the lead role to Kynaston, but insists on speaking an epilogue which she writes; it closes both Dryden's and Swale's play.

Cast and characters[edit]

Shakespeare's Globe, 2015[4] West End, 2016[5] UK Tour, 2017[6]
Nell Gwynn Gugu Mbatha-Raw Gemma Arterton Laura Pitt-Pulford
Thomas Killigrew Richard Katz Michael Garner Clive Hayward
Lord Arlington David Rintoul Michael Cochrane
Nancy Amanda Lawrence Michele Dotrice Mossie Smith
John Dryden Graham Butler Nicholas Shaw Nicholas Bishop
Lady Castlemaine / Louise de Keroualle Sasha Waddell Pandora Clifford
Rose Gwynn Anneika Rose Pepter Lunkuse
Ned Spigget Angus Imrie Peter McGovern George Jennings
Edward Kynaston Greg Haiste Esh Alladi
Queen Katherine / Old Ma Gwynn Sarah Woodward Joanne Howarth
Charles Hart Jay Taylor Sam Marks
Charles II David Sturzaker Ben Righton

Production[edit]

Playwright Jessica Swale and star Gugu Mbatha-Raw were long-term friends before making the play. The play courted controversy because Mbatha-Raw, a mixed-race woman, was cast to play Nell Gwyn, a historical white figure. Playwright Swale defended the choice saying, "It’s sort of frustrating that the question comes up, but I think it’s really important to say that it’s not a factor."[7] Mbatha-Raw expressed frustration with the issue of her race being raised, saying, "I’ve played Juliet and she’s supposed to be Italian, and I’m not Italian, and I’ve played Ophelia and she was in theory Danish. I think with theatre hopefully if you have the essence of a person it doesn’t matter so much what you look like."[8] Mbatha-Raw was nominated for Best Actress at the 2015 Evening Standard Theatre Awards for the role.[9]

The premiere production transferred to the Apollo Theatre, where it played from 4 February to 30 April 2016, with the lead role taken over by Gemma Arterton.[9][10] The play is to be revived as a touring production by English Touring Theatre in 2017 with Laura Pitt-Pulford as Nell, including a run at Shakespeare's Globe in May.[11][12]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Original West End Production[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
2015 Evening Standard Awards Best Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw Nominated
2016 Laurence Olivier Awards Best New Comedy Won
Best Actress Gemma Arterton Nominated
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Michele Dotrice Nominated
Best Costume Design Hugh Durrant Nominated

References[edit]

  1. ^ Morrison, Sarah (10 August 2013). "Jessica Swale Interview: Woman on Fire". The Independent. 
  2. ^ "Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale". Shakespeare's Globe. 
  3. ^ Rooney, David. "Gugu Mbatha-Raw to Return to London Stage". Retrieved 3 July 2015. 
  4. ^ "Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale / Shakespeare's Globe". www.shakespearesglobe.com. Retrieved 2017-01-07. 
  5. ^ "Nell Gwynn / Shakespeare's Globe". www.shakespearesglobe.com. Retrieved 2017-01-07. 
  6. ^ http://feastcreative.com, Feast Creative |. "English Touring Theatre". www.ett.org.uk. Retrieved 2017-01-07. 
  7. ^ Williams, Holly. "Gugu Mbatha-Raw on swapping Hollywood for Shakespeare's Globe to play Nell Gwynn". Retrieved 18 September 2015. 
  8. ^ Harvey, Chris. "Gugu Mbatha-Raw: 'Is my very existence provocative?'". Retrieved 22 September 2015. 
  9. ^ a b "Gemma Arterton to play Nell Gwynn in West End". The Guardian. 27 November 2015. 
  10. ^ "Nell Gwynn: Best New Comedy – Olivier Awards 2016". Shakespeare's Globe. 
  11. ^ "Nell Gwynn: Wed 1 March - Sat 4 March". The Lowry Art and Entertainment. 
  12. ^ "Nell Gwynn: 2-13 May 2017". Shakespeare's Globe.