Peter N. Skrine’s “The Baroque” provides this biography in brief of Nell Gwynn, the subject of the current production at the Folger Theatre: “King Charles II was a consummate prince, astute and cultivated, but equally well known for his erotic ardors; and his love for his best remembered mistress, the actress Nell Gwynn, began when he heard her speak the epilogue to Dryden’s ‘Tyrannick Love’ (1669). Love was indeed the tyrant then; and the power, wit, and rhetoric captured a reigning king. Or was it the other way around?”
The play “Nell Gwynn,” now playing at the Folger Theatre, attempts to answer this question. Written in 2015 by Jessica Swale (commissioned for London’s Globe Theatre) and directed by Robert Richmond, the production tells her story from her point of view.
The play follows Nell from her beginning as an orange-selling commoner to being discovered by a certain Mr. Hart, played well by Quinn Franzen. Hart is himself involved with Nell but must let her go once she has attracted the attention of Charles II. Nell is keenly aware that she finds her “voice” in theatre as England’s first well-known professional actress; prior to this time, male actors had played female roles on stage.
It is no exaggeration to say that the show is held together by the charisma of Alison Luff. She imbues in her character of Nell Gwynn a combination of the common and the regal, seducing both the audience and her king with her amazing wit and personality. She also brings a wonderful and robust singing voice in the musical numbers she performs.
R.J. Foster is a spirited Charles II, playing the part of lady’s man or lady’s king, to perfection. “That a man should be so great and base!” writes Dryden in “Tyrannick Love” of one of that play’s characters. “Nell Gwynn” is further enhanced by an excellent sound mix and a wonderful array of costumes, both of which heighten the immediacy of the performance while also highlighting the Restoration time period in which it is set.
Like many plays at the Folger, “Nell Gwynn” is a sort of play-within-a-play; as such, the show segues between Nell Gwynn’s own story and parts of plays by John Dryden in which she appears. An important writer of the Restoration Era, Dryden is seldom performed today, and this is a rare chance to be exposed to a once popular English playwright who has failed to keep his hold on modern tastes but is nonetheless an important figure in literature.
“Nell Gwynn” thus shares some elements with the film “Shakespeare in Love”; both deal with real historical characters and writers but speak the language of today. Each also has characters with comic foibles, though here there are slightly more elements which are risqué. Like Shakespeare in “Shakespeare in Love,” we find out how Dryden “really” wrote his plays, even imagining the plot to the “Titanic” film before this is discarded by Nell’s theatre company as an unworkable idea! While there is much humor, “Nell Gwynn” is not entirely a comedy, for there are also some serious moments as those close to Nell are harmed as she gets close to power and intrigue at court.
The audience at the Folger comes away with a moving and passionate story of an incredible woman rising through adversity and political cabals to become revered as one of the first female actors in English theatre. One quibble: some may wonder how much of the production is historical and how much was created by playwright Swales. One example: “Tyrannick Love,” which we have referenced here several times, was in fact the occasion at which Nell and Charles first met. Here, however, it is presented at the very end of “Nell Gwynn,” at the close of her relationship with Charles.
Such niceties aside, the show is frequently funny, often moving and completely engaging. It also casts light on a transformational era within both theatre and politics. Most audiences have some familiarity with the English Renaissance, an era which gave us Shakespeare and the King James Bible and ended with the brief Puritan Commonweath (1649-1660), during which English theatres were closed by the government. The restoration of the British monarchy under Charles II allowed the theatres to reopen and caused British literature to change in both form and content. In the US, this English Restoration literature is less well-known. “Nell Gwynn” provides a lively introduction to this important yet neglected period. The show may also cause us to reflect on our own era where, as in the time of Nell Gwynn, the seemingly separate realms of politics and entertainment are interacting in new and unexpected ways.
“Nell Gwynn” runs through March 10, 2019, at the Folger Theatre, located at 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003. Running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. The show contains some adult-themed content. For more information see https://www.folger.edu/events/nell-gwynn.