Last week our group traveled back in time and experienced Shakespeare’s Globe (not the original of course) when we saw Nell Gwynn, a comedy based on the actual life of English actress and mistress to King Charles II Nell Gwynn, directed by Christopher Luscombe. It was an amazing experience, placed along the south bank of the River Thames, giving The Globe beautiful views of London. Going up the steps into the courtyard outside The Globe one can feel the electricity in the air—people talking, drinking, and shops offering food, rain ponchos, and seat cushions. The thatched roof was what ignited my imagination; it took me right out of the hustle and bustle of the city to a time of days past. This electricity sets the atmosphere for the play.
Then you enter the theatre—an Elizabethan style playhouse set in the open, with room for people to sit (as our group did, protected from the elements) or to stand in the open and up close to the action. The seats reminded me of a high school football or basketball game: flat, bleacher-style benches. I was lucky, I had a seat in the back row so I could rest my back against the wall, but others were able to get seat cushions or seat rests. Then there were a large number of people who stood in the standing area in front of the stage, which I think was a genius idea. Not only does it offer a cheap option for people to come and experience the plays in The Globe, but also it takes the electricity and buzz created outside of the play and brings it into the theatre. With a play like Nell Gwynn, this buzz complements the play and in turn makes for a great night out (just remember to check the weather forecast, and pack accordingly).
The play started with an opening monologue, where some of the players started out in the crowd standing in front of the stage. “SPEAK LOUDER!” Someone shouted. I questioned for a moment whether it was someone in the audience yelling or if this was a part of the play, but then I saw an actor dressed up in an outfit. The audience interactions were an added touch to the play, and this was the perfect play to put in The Globe because of how they incorporated the audience. From scenes where they mingle with the audience, to scenes where they joke about being alone but they take a passing glance at the audience subtly acknowledging them. They even have a great one liner about Brexit when they ask who would ever want to leave Europe? The atmosphere of The Globe and the way the director and actors use the venue kept the audience engaged and entertained.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, the play is based on the real life of Nell Gwynn, one of the first female actresses in Britain, and a mistress of Charles II. Nell (played by Laura Pitt-Pulford), who comes from a poor family, gets an offer from Charles Hart (Sam Marks) to teach her how to act. She accepts and begins preparing with him. Charles II grants permission for playhouses to begin hiring women, and The Kings Company who Hart works for gain introduction to Nell through Hart. Everyone approves of Nell except for Edward Kynaston (Esh Alladi), who used to play the company’s female parts. One of the tropes of the play is this idea of what theatre is, and we see this conflict between Kynaston and Nell, as Kynaston complains that Nell hasn’t trained in the art of theatre for years as the others have, or that she has mastered all two-hundred something emotions. She is undermining the arts. Nell, however, insists she can play a woman better because she is a woman. When Nell first performs she an immediate hit, and her love affair with Hart begins to strengthen. Then, King Charles (Ben Righton) shows up to a play and immediately falls for Nell. She plays hard to get with him, and is very rebellious (as the audience has already seen in multiple scenes before this, she is a very independent person who does not mind rebelling against convention, and Charles finds this quality very attractive). Finally, she agrees to become a mistress to him, but not just for the 500 pounds a year and other goods the King can offer. She actually is falling for Charles.
After intermission, we are back with Nell, but this time in the court and living her new lavish lifestyle. This does not come without conflict. Her duties as a lover of the King and her job as an actress make is so she is always late to rehearsals and has not been able to see her family. It leads to a scene where her mom and sister show up to the royal court and beg to see her soon—which she promises to do the next day but then doesn’t. She also mixes politics with theatre when she sings a song mocking a woman sent by France to be a mistress to Charles. Because of her missing rehearsals and this mixing of politics and theatre, the company says she has to choose the King or her job. We see a personal crisis for Nell especially after she is informed of her mother’s death. The Buddha of Suburbia illustrates the process many different characters go through in the creation of an identity or a self. Nell goes through a similar event in the play, where she has to decide between her theatre career, her love of the King, and her relationship with her family. She ultimately chooses the King, and we see they live a happy life until Charles dies, and Nell is not permitted to see him on his deathbed. She ultimately goes back to the King Company full time, and she reconciles with Hart and everyone. Taking a part in their production of Tyrannick Love, Nell finishes off both plays simultaneously with the closing monologue.
Besides tropes of what theatre is and a conflict of self, there is also a feminist current in the play. From Nell and playhouse assistant Nancy (Mossie Smith) telling John Dryden (Nicholas Bishop) to write a real woman (and explain that Juliet was weak), to Nell bucking norms and doing things her way, the way Luscombe and Pitt-Pulfordweave this into the play added another layer to the play. The play was a comedy, but the choice to portray Nell as a feminist of her time made for a more complex character, and a better character overall. For people who are familiar with the history, it gave a fresh take on Nell as well.
The play accomplished exactly what it was supposed to: as a comedy it was supposed to entertain. It did just that. Unlike the farce, The Hypocrite (a play we saw earlier in Stratford upon Avon), which was just laugh after laugh, this play had other storylines such as the feminist undercurrent and an exploration of identity. Luscombe did a fantastic job using the space, and Pitt-Pulford was amazing as the witty and rebellious Nell. One of the most entertaining performances was by Alladi. His comedy as the indignant protector of theatre tradition was played perfectly and even endearing at times. Placing this play in the atmosphere of The Globe, Nell Gwynn becomes an enjoyable night out—and definitely a memorable play for me! If you are interested in visiting The Globe and checking out a play (sorry, Nell Gwynn’s last performance was May 13th) visit their website at: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/
Brandon B. Fabel ‘18