Nell Gwynn, Theatre Royal, Bath
Nell launches into the playwright Dryden: “Yet again some gallant falls for a waifish, wilting woman, without a bean of personality or a single funny line, but hey, it doesn’t matter because she’s pretty. and what does this flimsy whimsy want from life, adventure? Respect? No.”
Poor Mr Dryden in Jessica Swale’s politically correct romp through Restoration England he is reduced to a quivering wimp while Laura Pitt-Pulford as Nell castigates him and William Shakespeare for their failings in portraying women in drama.
Juliet is nothing more than an empty vessel who without a man is nothing. While Nell is everything that Shakespeare’s flimsy whimsy is not according to Swale. All agreed on that one but then the playwright gives it all away in her airbrushing of the harshness of the times. In her programme notes she decided against writing in language of the time as: “I thought it would be alienating (and a little perverse) to use archaic language…” We don’t have trouble with the Bard’s language of 50 years earlier but Restoration language is a barrier it seems. No, she just saw the play as a farce: “so that’s what it is.” A modern British farce but without the 17th century grit.
Perhaps it may be a case that the language of the time would have more accurately represented the attitudes of the court circles Nell had entered into – and potentially alienating the full houses of liberal minded audiences Swale is more interested in? Nell wouldn’t have worried about that aspect of theatre as she was a natural when it came to the stage – a pre-music hall performer who could hold the audience in her hand unlike the wonderfully musical and charming Laura. Her Nell was nice, girl next door-ish – not the charismatic character who grabbed centre stage with a ruthlessness born from poverty.
In this version of the life of the 17th century actor, wit and orange seller Nell is almost accidentally thrust into the limelight. Sans vulgarity, sans sexuality, sans Coal Pit Yard.
Gone are the more caustic aspects of her personality, her sister (Pepter Junkuse) is under played and Charles II (Ben Righton) is a reasonable cove, happy to chat away like some 21st century chap who has been mistakenly thrust into power as head of state. As historically accurate drama goes it is so much hogwash – the harshness and also the fascination of Jacobean society is homogenized into a modern day blandness for the audience drugged by a glass or three of house white.
Despite the travesty that is presented Christopher Luscombe’s production is brilliantly directed, lavishly presented with live music from Emily Baines, Arngeir Hauksson, Sharon Lindo and Nicholas Perry. We don’t mind the modern language but please don’t take out the dirt and the religious viciousness of an era soaked in gin, poverty and sectarianism. Nell’s mum (Joanne Howarth), Lord Arlington (Michael Cochrane) were allowed to bring the grime into the production – thank goodness.
It skips along with pace, panache and exuberance but as the critic once wrote all plays are 20 minutes too long. This one certainly is.
The play continues in London at Shakespeare’s Globe until 13 May.
Nell Gwynn, Theatre Royal, Bath