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A First Woman on Stage: Nell Gwynn

Based on seeing the February 7, 2019 performance of Jessica Swale's Restoration comedy Nell Gwynn under the direction of Robert Richmond, who also directed Davenant's Macbeth, the Dresser highly recommends immediate purchase of tickets before they sell out to this exceptionally fine play running until March 10th at Washington, DC's intimate Folger Theatre.

The 37-year-old British playwright Jessica Swale, who showed her chops on her first play Blue Stockings (2013), won for Nell Gwynn the 2016 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. Like Blue Stockings, Nell Gwynn (2015) premiered at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and in 2016 moved to the historic West End Apollo Theatre.


Nell Gwynn features the story of one of the first women on the English stage. Prior to 1660, only men were allowed to act and women were portrayed by such men as Edward Kynaston, a real-life character in Swale's play. In 1660 when Charles II was restored to the English throne, the king licensed two acting companies and legalized the acting profession for women. Gwynn (1650-1687), a child of an unmarried working-class mom--a madam, was discovered by a prominent Restoration actor named Charles Hart. In the play, Nell becomes his lover but later is pursued by Charles II (1630-1685) who eventually wins her heart and she becomes his mistress who not only bears him two sons but also lives in his palace.

The cast, especially Alison Luff as Nell Gwynn, is exceptional in acting talents. Luff is in the same class of electrifying performance as Julie Andrews who, in 1956, created the onstage musical theater role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. While Nell Gwynn is not a musical, composer Kim Sherman, in the tradition of modern Shakespearean theater, has written pleasing original music matched to the period for this production and the players sing and dance ably to this music. Mariah Anzaldo Hale's costumes are eye-catching in color and design. Tony Cisek's sets and props slide smoothly and often energetically into and out of view.
What the Dresser was particularly fascinated by was the metaplay that persists throughout this play. Thomas Killigrew (Nigel Gore), the theater manager of the King's Company, the acting company of which he and Hart are members, tries to persuade their house playwright John Dryden (Michael Glenn portrays the famous poet known by modern day students of English literature) that the playwright would benefit with range of character if their company had a real-life woman. The fit-to-be-tied woman-impersonating Edward Kynaston, as portrayed by Christopher Dinolfo, strenuously argues against adding a woman.

...she wouldn't just be convincing. She would be real. Dryden, think! You could write any sort of woman you want--not just the passive lover, the fragile beauty. If you're writing for real women, they won't need to be so feminine anymore.

No, no, no, no, no! You miss the point entirely. Theatre is artifice. It's make believe. Pretend. The blood is not real blood. Othello's not a real Moor. People come to the playhouse to engage with the imaginary. For a short break from their wretched, drivel-filled lives they can escape. Who'd go to the theatre to see real people saying real things about real life? That would be preposterous! We trade in magic. And we are trained to do it. Honed, groomed, athletes of the imagination. And these women-- what training have they had, eh?

Of course the irony is that the audience in the Folger Theatre, a replica of the Globe Theatre, has come to a play populated by historically real English people who for the most part are speaking the historically accurate story of a woman who was taught to be an actor at a time when that had been forbidden. Kynaston's fan scene is not only instructive about the Restoration language of a woman's fan but comic. What's more, Jessica Swale is showing the contemporary audience the process by which Nell became an "actor-ess," which also adds another layer of interest to her play--Swale is teaching the audience what Nell needed to learn to join the King's Company. And here the Dresser laughs in her sleeve because what Nell learned was how she joined personally in the King's company and became his favored mistress for the rest of his and her lives.

Lest contemporary audience be confused about when Nell Gwynn was written, Swale throws in some contemporary language like having Nancy (Catherine Flye), Nell's dresser, say "wait for it" when Killigrew arrives to announce that their rival acting company has put a woman on stage. Catherine Flye, who also plays Nell's unrefined mother, is a master at comic timing.

For the Dresser, Robert Richmond's production of Nell Gwynn had not one dull moment in it and that's saying a lot for a two-hour-and-thirty-minute play with one 15-minute intermission.

Given that Swale's Nell Gwynn includes poet playwright John Dryden, the Dresser feels doubly sure that the last words belong to a contemporary poet, such as Susan Lewis. In Lewis' prose poem "Today the leaves," a woman of power--Madame President--presents. Like Nell Gwynn, Madame President is disparaged with such words as "precious, messy, & inconsequent" not to mention her "floozy hope" and "her closest uncloseted kin." In Nell's case, not only does she have her unruly mother but also her sister Rose (Caitlin Cisco) who acts like Nell's conscience.


jostle for the sun's brandished meal. A minor chord
day, compressing the worms in their tight & silent
world. Reluctant seeds gaping to a care-worn
future, scattered cosmos unimpressed. What's
that you say, Madame President? Emoticons
embellishing perception via harbingers of swoon.
Elsewise processing the inputs, despite an
endless weary trap seasoned with too much not
enough. A standard deviation from deviation
thrown at any problem like onions, gold nuggets,
skyscrapers, & severed heads abloom like silken
hares. Who might not be precious, messy, &
inconsequent? Roped by this tinsel glint of agency,
that floozy hope, or her closest uncloseted kin.

by Susan Lewis
from Zoom

Photo Credits: Brittany Diliberto


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 10, 2019 11:52 AM.

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