‘The people loved her because she was one of them’: Jessica Swale on her play Nell Gwynn

Nell Gwynn rose from poverty to become the most celebrated actress of her day and a mistress of King Charles II. And now she is returning to the West End as the subject of Jessica Swale’s acclaimed play Nell Gwynn, first seen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2015 and to be revived at the Apollo Theatre next month with Gemma Arterton in the title role. Here, Jessica Swale speaks to Heather Neill about Nell’s world and why she’s still such a potent figure for us today.

Nell Gwynn, orange-seller and mistress of Charles II, is a figure of legend, but where did she come from?

It’s hard to know exactly; working-class lives weren’t recorded in enough detail for there to be accurate records, but many believe she was brought up in Coal Yard Alley in Covent Garden, where her mother, ‘Old Ma Gwynn’, kept a brothel. Nell probably worked there, either serving drinks to clients or as a prostitute. Some say she worked as a herring gutter or oyster hawker before she began selling oranges in the pit at Drury Lane. Her father died in a debtors’ prison and she had one sister called Rose.

Part of the joy of writing Nell Gwynn has been sketching around the bones of the known facts, imagining and inventing. I never set out to write a documentary-style play, but even if I had, the task would have proved impossible with the inconsistencies and contradictions in her history.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell in Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell in Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo by Tristram Kenton

What was the life of an orange-seller like?

The girls sold sharp China oranges and sweetmeats in baskets, whilst earning tips passing messages between punters and backstage – like a seventeenth-century Tinder. Many were prostitutes too. It’s not clear how Nell got onstage, but I like
to imagine that she was spotted wittily doing her job by Charles Hart.

Hart was the star of the day.

Yes, and she did become his mistress. Dryden wrote plays for them both in Thomas Killigrew’s company. Nell was a highly successful and popular comic actress and, although she was illiterate, it’s very likely that she really did invent and perform the Epilogue that appears at the end of Nell Gwynn.

What was theatre like when it was re-established after Cromwell’s Commonwealth?

When Charles II returned from France in 1660, he licensed two theatre companies in London: Killigrew’s King’s Company at Drury Lane and Davenant’s Duke’s Company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I imagine Killigrew must have been under tremendous pressure as the two companies were in constant competition. At Drury Lane there was an apron stage and a pit filled with benches rather than standing groundlings. Society was much smaller then, so all classes would meet at the theatre – and the Globe emulates that democratic feel.

Graham Butler as John Dryden in the Shakespeare's Globe production. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Graham Butler as John Dryden in the Shakespeare’s Globe production. Photo by Tristram Kenton

As for Dryden, it is funny that so many of his plays are badly written, but he must have felt the weight of expectation; theatre was re-emerging after an eleven-year gap, he was at the helm of the new culture, the King wanted new plays – it can’t have been easy. No wonder they reinvented so many familiar texts. There was a fashion for rewriting Shakespeare, particularly cheering up the tragedies. King Lear was given a new ending in which Cordelia survives, and Dryden wrote a ‘new play’ called The Enchanted Island, about Prospero and his two daughters – Miranda and Dorinda. Sound familiar? Yet, though his plays haven’t stood the test of time, he was a successful poet and even became Poet Laureate.

How did the first actresses fit into the picture?

Charles II had seen actresses on stage in Paris and decided it was high time we followed fashion. However, the early actresses got a rather raw deal. Writers knew the audiences’ interest in actresses was often voyeuristic, so played into this by writing body-exposing rape scenes, or writing ‘breeches parts’, in which women, disguised as tight-trousered men (exposing their shapely legs) were then revealed to be female with the dramatic exposure of their breasts. Punters often paid an extra penny to watch the actresses change, many of whom were prostitutes. This was Nell’s world, but I wanted her to question it. If she was learning the craft, falling in love with acting, surely someone of her wit and intelligence would want better parts to play than the ‘wilting waifish woman’. She wasn’t the first woman on stage; that was probably Margaret Hughes, or possibly (as in this play) Moll Davies at the rival company, but Nell was in the first wave of actresses.

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Photo by Tristram Kenton

You have had considerable success directing plays of this period. Did you consider writing in the style of a Restoration play?

Whilst I originally considered writing in a Restoration style, I thought it would be alienating (and a little perverse) to use archaic language, to be overly verbose and use magniloquent phraseology unnecessarily (you see). What was far more important to me was to capture the quick wit of the time – and the equivalent of that for us is more akin to modern farce. So that’s what I decided to go with for Nell Gwynn. I’ve peppered it with period references, but I’ve chosen to use modern syntax and diction, with the occasional anachronism for comic effect.

You have actors demonstrating ‘attitudes’, poses to indicate emotions. Would the acting style have seemed alien to us?

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Photo by Tristram Kenton

It’s easy to assume that it was melodramatic, but actually Pepys describes the best actors as seeming real, so I wonder if the style somehow used precise physical positions as a structure, rather like ballet, whilst still being emotionally connected, like naturalism. The ‘attitudes’ weren’t static poses but frameworks of movements and gestures which actors used to underscore the text. As theatres were large buildings, it was important that emotion could be read in an actor’s posture. Heightened emotion, stylised, but still real.

Are the songs in the play based on the music of the period?

They’re certainly inspired by it. I love writing lyrics, and had been listening to everything from Purcell to an album called The History of Bawdy Songs, the title of which tells you all you need to know! So I would write in pastiche of a style, then pass the lyrics on to [composer] Nigel Hess, who would transform them by writing original melodies and scoring them so beautifully that they’d become unrecognisable. He is a genius, I think.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell and David Sturzaker as Charles II. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell and David Sturzaker as Charles II. Photo by Tristram Kenton

How much is known of Nell’s relationship with the King?

I think they really were in love. She was his favourite mistress for many years, and they spent a lot of private time together. He had a secret passage built from his court rooms in Westminster to her house in Pall Mall, so they could rendezvous for card games and evenings away from the public. Unlike Barbara Castlemaine [another mistress of Charles II, sometimes referred to as ‘the Uncrowned Queen’], she made no attempt to interfere in politics and never asked for a title for herself (though she did for her sons). Louise de Keroualle, another favourite mistress and Nell’s rival, was tremendously unpopular and was known as ‘the Catholic whore’. There’s a story that a crowd once attacked Nell’s coach thinking Louise was inside, so Nell merrily stuck her head out and said ‘Hold, good people, I am the Protestant whore!’, which garnered whoops and cheers from the delighted onlookers. The people loved her because she was one of them. And, of course, there’s Charles’s famous dying wish: ‘Don’t let poor Nellie starve.’

Gemma Arterton as Nell in a publicity shot for the forthcoming West End production

Gemma Arterton as Nell in a publicity shot for the forthcoming West End production

One of your themes is celebrity.

It’s fascinating to ask whether Nell’s celebrity was due to her brilliance as an actress or because she was the King’s mistress. Pamphleteers – like paparazzi today – would quickly report the activities of the famous, and Charles (and his mistresses) were the hot topic. There was such a frenzy to see him that they even allowed the public into the gallery to watch him eat dinner at night. There was a culture of writing lewd poems about society figures; just look at Rochester [John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, the renowned poet and courtier, famous for his libertinism and profane verse] . So if there’s a few dirty jokes in the play, don’t blame me, it’s all in the name of historical accuracy…

Was it difficult to distinguish fact from legend and gossip?

Yes, and I made a decision early on that the play should be an entertaining homage to Nell rather than an attempt at documentary-style historical accuracy. Otherwise the play would be a week long, and have to include the fire of London, the plague and the entire Court decamping to Oxford in 1665, just for starters. I made giant wall charts coursing the events of the theatre and the Court, but even then there are contradictions where historians debate when and how. I have drawn on hearsay; the story of the laxatives, for example. But primarily I wanted to honour Nell’s memory, to capture her spirit and what she stood for rather than stick slavishly to facts. The key events of the play are historically accurate, but I’ve allowed myself to embellish. Primarily, I wanted it to be fun. And if it’s a play that Nell would have enjoyed, that’s enough for me.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell in the Shakespeare's Globe production. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell in the Shakespeare’s Globe production. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Reprinted with kind permission of Shakespeare’s Globe. Heather Neill is a freelance journalist and theatre historian.


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager: Jessica Swale has had remarkable success within the amateur market with her first play Blue Stockings, which shot straight to the top of our most-performed plays of 2014 and managed to keep its position there last year as well. So we have extremely high hopes for Nell Gwynn too. It is such a wonderful show with a larger-than-life female protagonist injecting it with zest and life, I can only see a very bright future for it amongst amateur companies up and down the country. And the good news is that, despite the forthcoming West End revival, we are already inviting interest in the play, as suitable potential productions will be given the green light. So please get in touch with us at rights@nickhernbooks.co.uk and send us the details of your planned production and we’ll do all we can to get it to go ahead. Looking forward to hearing from you soon! Tamara von Werthern, Performing Rights Manager


The Shakespeare’s Globe production of Nell Gwynn opens at the Apollo Theatre, West End, on 12 February, with previews from 4 February. To book tickets, click here.

The playtext, including a longer version of the interview extracted above, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy a copy with a 20% discount, click here.

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