Photo – Chris Lundie
Every so often one comes across a new play that is so fresh and entertaining that you find yourself not just laughing out loud at the jokes, but spontaneously clapping with delight at the wry humour and irreverence in dealing with something as potentially stolid as a historical costume drama. Of course, given that the particular subject matter here is the infamously witty and groundbreaking actress and royal mistress Nell Gwynn, it would be a great disservice were it anything less than funny.
For those not in the know, Nell Gwynn was an English public figure in the latter half of the 17th Century, a former prostitute who became one of the first women to act in live theatre after a change to the law that had long allowed only all-male companies. She went on to even greater notoriety as the long-running mistress of Charles II, the first king of the restored monarchy after the Cromwellian interregnum. Famed for her appeal as a generally comedic performer but also for her reputedly quick wit and clever tongue in real life, this play tells her story, in an unapologetically feminist vein, as a woman who navigated her patriarchally-defined roles with considerable agency, and very largely on her own terms.
What playwright Jessica Swale has achieved is an especially canny and vivacious approach to the material, perhaps channelling some of Gwynn’s famed irreverence by infusing the playtext with refreshingly modern idiom for this Restoration-era story. Sometimes anachronistically so, not just in phrasing such as one actor quipping “too soon?” after a reference to the historically-contemporary Great Plague of London, but in a general sense via the portrayal of the characters through a modern lens.
Swale is undoubtedly drawing on some of her own theatrical experience in depicting the travails of the King’s Company as a collection of neurotic actors and theatremakers. This was particularly well done in the hilarious framing of Edward Kynaston, one of the old guard of male actors who traditionally took the female roles, as a highly-strung “theatre luvvie”, played to prissy perfection by Steven Ljubovic. Insisting that he can play women better than any actual woman due his extensive theatrical training and mastery of technique, Kynaston constantly seeks to upstage Nell, pulling focus with rather more modern actorly concerns such as wanting to craft elaborate backstories for his now-reduced roles, and wanting to know his characters’ motivations.
Rupert Reid delivers a fine spectrum of emotions as Charles Hart, the actor who plucked Nell from obscurity as an orange hawker in the theatre, seeing potential star quality in her droll besting of a heckler. Hart also became her lover, before being passed over once she caught the eye of the theatre-loving and philandering King, which led him to much bereft bitterness thereafter, especially when asked to play older, less dashing parts in subsequent plays.
Perhaps the most understatedly funny performance in the whole cast comes from Steve Corner as playwright John Dryden. As one would expect, the play simplifies various aspects of Nell’s historical biography for dramatic streamlining. This encompasses glossing over her being a mistress to some other high-profile men before becoming the King’s “kept woman”, removing mention of her ill-fated second son by the monarch, and the fact that several playwrights furnished her famous roles. In this play Dryden stands in for all of these, framed as the resident bard for their theatre company, and portrayed as something of a procrastinating and derivative hack, beset by writer’s block and as keen to latch onto any whimper of an idea proffered by the actors as he is to obfuscate how much of any impending play he has actually yet written. With a keen eye towards Swale’s conception of Dryden as a more modern image of a neurotic writer, Corner is hilarious in the role, pitching his prevarications and pompousness just perfectly.
Quite funny as well is Shan-Ree Tan as the company manager Thomas Killigrew, whom Swale depicts akin to a long-suffering modern director. Forever weary, Killigrew is beleaguered by Nell’s absences and controversies, Dryden over-promising and under-delivering on scripts, Hart pining for Nell and refusing non-romantic roles, and Kynaston being a perpetual diva.
Lloyd Allison-Young is very fine in a pivotal role as King Charles II, presenting at first as a spoiled man-child evading his monarchical responsibilities in the interests of self-gratification. Yet without entirely undercutting the truth to this first impression, Allison-Young skillfully fleshes out Swale’s gradual reveal of Charles with a more complex characterisation, a man hemmed in by a perilous past and uncertain legacy, an beset by political intrigue seemingly beyond his capability to navigate.
As one can expect though, this production lives or dies on the casting of its titular lead, and fortunately holds an embarrassment of riches in the performance of Bishanyia Vincent as Nell Gwynn. With an earthy presence and electric charisma, she personifies the role of Nell as a woman both simple and complex, shaped by her past but unashamed and emboldened by it, someone who has learned to live on her shrewdness and charm. Always looking out for number one, yet coming across as neither callous nor calculating, Nell is portrayed as an open-hearted women who loved men and performing alike, but one who was smart enough to not allow herself to ever become too vulnerable. Yet it is capturing a sense of personal vulnerability that makes Vincent’s performance so layered, as her comedic verve and sassy energy would seem shallow without the counterbalance of this contrasting emotional heft.
Apart from the common community theatre pitfall of rather leaden blackout scene-changes pumping the breaks of the otherwise strong dramatic flow, director Deborah Jones and choreographer Virginia Ferris have crafted an extremely robust production, full of life and energy with some really terrific performances. It is a delight to see a 16-strong cast form such a cohesive ensemble, led from the front by the vivacious Vincent but with no real weak links bringing up the rear. It is a captivating and extremely enriching story from start to finish. Strongly recommended, especially for anyone who thinks costume dramas or theatre history sound like a boring night out.
New Theatre presents
by Jessica Swale
Director Deborah Jones
Venue: New Theatre | 542 King Street Newtown NSW
Dates: 7 August - 8 September 2018
Tickets: $35 – $30