J D Davies

For Whom the Nell Tolls

A bit of culture at the weekend, namely an outing to the Saturday matinee of Nell Gwynn at the wonderfully ornate Apollo Theatre in London’s West End. I’d read the reviews of this when it premiered at the Globe last autumn, but we failed to secure tickets for it then. Written by Jessica Swale, the play makes Nell into a very modern heroine – feisty, independent and immensely likeable, certainly as played by the wonderful Gemma Arterton. But in some respects, it stays true to Nell’s times, too. We have allusions to the Commonwealth (Charles II’s real live spaniel pup, which inevitably draws the biggest ‘aww’ of the show from a stereotypically British audience, is named Oliver Cromwell), to attempts to overthrow the Earl of Clarendon, to fears of Catholicism, and to the Exclusion Crisis: indeed, Swale uses some of Charles II’s own words from his speech dissolving the Oxford Parliament, and Nell’s epilogue was supposedly written by herself. I was secretly chuffed that the very first song that the cast performs is derived from the one I used as the epigraph of the final chapter in The Blast That Tears The Skies. The Earl of Arlington appears as the principal ‘baddie’, while Catherine of Braganza, Barbara Castlemaine and Louise de la Keroualle all make appearances, with Nell’s battle against the last of these culminating in the appearance of what must be comfortably the largest hat to adorn a London stage in living memory, accompanied by the delivery of her immortal quip, ‘I am the Protestant whore!’

There are quite a few theatrical in-jokes too, many of them at Shakespeare’s expense and others which involve the actors mercilessly and hilariously satirising their own profession. Inevitably, Charles II’s decision to allow women to perform on stage dominates the first third or so of the play, with some Premier League outrage and grumpiness from Ned Kynaston, who had made a stellar career out of playing women, but who sees it suddenly crumble into dust thanks to the arrival of ‘actoresses’. John Dryden is one of the principal characters, and gets many of the play’s best lines and funniest moments, such as his attempt to brainstorm the plot of a new play based on two lovers caught up in a shipwreck, which is slowly revealed to be the plotline of Titanic. But we get references to some of the Restoration theatre’s genuine oddities, too, such as Dryden’s rewrite of The Tempest as The Enchanted Island (‘sounds familiar’, says one character as Dryden explains that he, too, has a magician called Prospero) and Nahum Tate’s astonishing reworking of King Lear to provide it with a happy ending. One suspects that only the hardcore Restoration geeks in the audience (* waves *) would have picked up quite a few of these historical and literary allusions.

Inevitably, though, there were some moments that might have caused a less restrained seventeenth century historian than myself to jump onto the stage and demand that the performance cease there and then. Charles II claiming that he witnessed his father’s beheading is, of course, historical nonsense on a grand scale, although this piece of outrageous dramatic licence does make for a moment of great drama and poignancy. As Swale herself admits in her programme notes, the demands of cramming a twenty-year story into two hours meant that she had to cut a great deal – the Plague and the Great Fire of London, for example. Presumably, too, she must also have assumed that audiences would find it difficult to swallow the notion of the Dutch as England’s principal enemy, so makes it Spain instead. Even so, the play does make allusion to naval warfare, albeit from the unlikely lips of Barbara Castlemaine – to whom the King responds, ‘I love it when you talk defence strategy to me’. Ultimately, though, some might baulk at the implicit political message, despite the play’s few knowing digs at austerity to catch the mood of the moment; Nell’s principal achievement is suggested to be stiffening the indecisive King’s backbone so that he dissolves Parliament and begins a period of absolute rule, not necessarily the most Guardian-friendly line that the playwright could have taken. There is relatively little of the dark underbelly of Restoration London, too, although some telling counterpoint is provided by Nell’s fraught and ultimately tragic relationship with her mother and her sister Rose, a key element of one of the play’s central themes, Nell’s response to rising so far above her roots and her perceived station in society.

All in all, then, Nell Gwynn is a truly joyous romp, performed by a uniformly terrific cast. If you can beg, steal or borrow a ticket for later in its limited twelve-week run, then you should grasp the opportunity with both hands!