Writer: Steve Trafford
Director: Damian Cruden
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Nell Gwyn is arguably British history’s most famous mistress, and probably the most famous woman of the 17th-century. We may remember the names of the Kings who ruled – James, Charles, Charles and James – but their Queens are largely forgotten, Nell, however, continues to fascinate. With the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London reawakening interest in Restoration England, London can expect to hear a lot about Nell Gwyn, especially when Gemma Arterton assumes the role at the Apollo next month. Beating them to the punch, however, is Steve Trafford’s 2014 play The Restoration of Nell Gwyn which arrived at the Park Theatre for the final leg of its UK tour.
It’s 1685 and Charles II lays dying. A few doors away his long-term mistress Nell Gwyn is barred from seeing him and dejectedly worries about her future without royal patronage. In conversation with her maid Margery, Nell waits for news while wistfully recounting tales of her career on the stage and life in the King’s bed. As things start to look hopeless tensions between the women come to a head as they face a new world and a new monarch, so a sense of mortality hangs over the action, giving it a melancholy air.
Steve Trafford’s play is sharply written, full of wit and subtly references several Shakespeare plays which add greater meaning including asking the audience to ‘rely on your imaginations / So, picture an England turned upside down’ which echoes the opening Chorus speech in Henry V, while Nell quotes both Richard II’s deposition scene and Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ monologue. Trafford cleverly uses the characters of Margery and Nell to introduce the audience to life for women in the 17th-century as objects of desire, potential mothers and unnoticed servants. While Margery provides plenty of jokey asides encouraging the viewer to laugh at Nell’s histrionics, the fragility of Nell’s position is pointedly clear. One of the most fascinating aspects of this production is the sense that she never escaped from the theatre and has had to play the part of the coquettish woman whose duty is to inspire love and desire in men to retain her position. This comes across most clearly in a section where Nell teaches Margery the art of fan waving as a means to seduce and flirt. This contrasts with the pity the women express for Charles’s wife who has ‘proved as barren as Clapham Common’ and thereby failing to fulfil her one feminine duty.
In Elizabeth Mansfield’s interesting performance, Nell is not necessarily a woman you like or respect, she’s silly, vain and haughty, veering between pride and shame at her lowly orange-selling origins, but Mansfield makes it clear that from an early age her life has been entirely concerned with sex and desire, and is a part she must continue to play regardless of age or circumstances – although Nell was actually only 37 when she died she is portrayed as older here. But there is a deeper understanding in Nell who casually incorporates Shakespeare quotes and Purcell songs into her everyday speech to signal the underlying sadness and sense of betrayal, as well as a fascinating contradiction of an erudite and intelligent woman who must play the fool to survive.
Angela Curran’s Margery is the star of the show, as she pops in and out of the story to narrate the wider context of Nell’s life and Charles’s reign. She has all the sharp one-liners and Curran’s warm performance draws the audience into the story while eventually building up to her own character revelations. There is also a clear distinction being made between the courtly women who can indulge in fantasies of beauty and love and the more down-to-earth Margerys who have to work.
Not everything works, however, and the drama of the conclusion feels a little forced, even unlikely given the amount of time that has passed and the nature of master-servant relationships. But mostly it’s just too modern and feels as though feminism and a social equality rant are being shoe-horned in to make this ‘relevant’ whereas those messages were clear enough in the rest of the play. It is also difficult to think of Nell as a victim as the play sometimes implies, to have maintained her position for so long she must have been a pretty shrewd political operator and full of schemes to retain her power. Still, as an insight into one of the most famous courtesans in history,The Restoration of Nell Gwyn is thought-provoking and with a wave of modern feminist thinking sweeping through popular culture it is timely to ask how much has really changed?
Runs until20 February 2016 | Image: Anthony Robling