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Nell Gwynn

by on 31 October 2021

Moments of Delight

Nell Gwynn

by Jessica Swale

Q2 Players at the National Archives, Kew until 30th October

Review by Celia Bard

I admit to feeling of anticipation on entering the National Archive Centre for it was the first time of seeing Q2 Players in their theatre at Kew.  I was also keen to see dramatist Jessica Swale’s treatment of the legendary Renaissance actress, Nell Gwynn.  The play is set in the 1660’s, historically an interesting time in England.  After almost two decades of revolution, war and theatrical suppression, monarchy and theatre have been restored.  The play chronicles the meteoric rise of Nell Gwynn from a humble orange seller to the favourite mistress of King Charles II. 

The set design by Junis Olmscheid succeeded in creating the feel of an actors’ company during Renaissance times and also that of a royal court.  The set consisted of a proscenium arch, plush red drapes and sashes, carefully placed screen and two splendid Royal looking chairs permanently placed downstage left, a gentle reminder that King Charles II was very much part of this play.  The costumes were just superb and played an important part in helping to establish the feel of the period.   Junis Olmscheid and Tamsyn O’Connor must be given credit for the level of research that clearly went into this aspect of stage and costume design. 

Swale’s play, Nell Gwynn was performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2015 so it is a modern play and Swale gives a nod to modern times by referencing events well after 1660 such as Dryden’s plot for a play that describes the sinking of the Titanic.  We know that Dryden historically enjoyed a close relationship with Nell but this relationship stays well within the boundaries of playwright and actress in this play.  Another modern touch is when the King shouts out “Austerity” at the beginning of the play.  This is clever writing as it makes it impossible to categorise the play merely as a period piece.  The play also has rekindled an interest in John Dryden, dryly acted by Dominic Parford, and encourages me to take another look at his work. 

This is a period when we first see women taking to the stage in England, most likely a decision influenced by Charles II’s return to England from France, where he was used to seeing female actresses on the stage.  Nell Gwynn, played by Cat Lamin, was one of the first actress to perform on the English stage.  They were not afforded much respect as reflected in Edward Kynaston’s disgusted response to Nell when introduced to the company, and also the tarty comment from Nell about men paying a penny to watch the actresses change. 

Nell is a difficult part for she is a complex character acting out a variety of roles, street-seller, prostitute, mistress, actress, courtier.  Her interaction with other characters is also multi-layered as seen in her relationship with a gin-soaked mother, a sister, Charles Hart, the King.   One of her most telling moments is at the end of the play on returning to the Company when she says, “I want to play myself.”  And that of course is what the play is about.  Nell also has to sing, and a favourite moment of mine about Lamin’s performance was seeing and hearing her sing in French, satirising the King’s new French mistress who was sitting alongside the King in the audience. 

“I want to play myself.”

Another scene I particularly appreciated was the demonstration by Charles Hart (Hugh Cox) of offering lessons in the craft of acting.   This comes directly after the opening sequence to the play in which we see the novice actor, Ned Spiggett, played by Fred Ezekiel, fluffing his lines.  Nell comes to his rescue and thus catches the eye of Hart.   The scene in which in advises Nell on voice projection and how to display different types of emotion is superb.  Cox certainly lives up to his advice when he asserts the importance of an actor always engaging with the audience.  This he does throughout the play.  His performance is totally believable.

Another excellent performance is that provided by Tony Cotterill as the foppish camp actor, Edward Killigrew, whose acting specialism was the portrayal of female roles.  Cotterill gives a very controlled performance, it would have been so easy to have sent this role up, but he errs on the right side of caution.   His demonstration of the use of the fan and its hidden language secrets was a sheer delight.  Humorous play also on the word ‘Actress’ as ‘act or less.’

Rose, Nell’s sister, played by Eleanor Greenwood-Stemp gives a spirited performance.  Her anger and distain of Nell shines through when she berates Nell for the uncaring way in which she has treated their gin-soaked mother.  Tim William’s performance of King Charles II errs towards the burlesque.  He is at his most sincere when delivering a speech to the House of Lords, describing the precarious situation he feels himself to be in.  This speech was delivered with strong feeling and added another dimension to what is generally known about King Charles II.  His death scene tended to be rather rushed, and I felt that an opportunity was missed here to further explore the relationship between him and Nell.

“This Shakespeare fellow should

learn to write proper plays.”

Arlington, the King’s loyal courtier, played by Marcus Ezekiel, could have been more sinister and then his punishment, namely having to walk the dogs, would have made more of an impact.  A delightful cameo performance was given by Illeana Falcone who plays Queen Catherine.  Although one couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying, it really didn’t matter as her facial expressions said it all.  Doubling up can be difficult but Juliette Sexton in her roles of Lady Castlemaine and Louise De Keroualle manages this well.  The scorned mistress scene was especially effective.  Nancy, the reluctant actress, played by Rachel Burham displayed excellent timing skills. 

Nell Gwynn is a lengthy play.  The play itself consists of lots of scenes, and at times the question crossed my mind as how necessary it was for scene shifters to come onto the stage at the end of certain scenes to remove and then later to put back one piece of furniture.  This tended to interfere with the flow of the play.  Other set pieces stayed on the stage throughout and this did not destroy stage illusion.  The play is also written as a parody, using satire to mock both the times, and John Dryden, England’s first poet laureate.  Satire at its most effective is when the balance between distortion and truth is finely tuned.  For me this was not always the case, though truth to be told there were many moments in this production that were a sheer delight.  My first visit to theatre at The National Archives in Kew was not a disappointment.

Celia Bard, October 2021

Photography by Ben Gingell

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  1. NELL GWYNN By Jessica Swale. – Q2 Players

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