Harriet Walter (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2018. To mark the occasion, we’ve commissioned interviews with some of our leading authors and playwrights. First up, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Dame Harriet Walter…

Actor Harriet Walter has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, including playing almost all of Shakespeare’s heroines on the stage. As she ruefully points out in her latest book, Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, she has reached a point in her career where she has exhausted the supply of mature female roles in the Shakespeare canon. Where, she asks, does an actress go after playing Cleopatra’s magnificent death?

Then, as she recounts in the book, the director Phyllida Lloyd came to her with the idea of an all-female Shakespeare season at the Donmar Warehouse. Committing herself to this experiment, Harriet played Brutus in Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar in 2012, followed by the title role in Henry IV (a condensed version combining both parts, which opened at the Donmar in 2014), and then Prospero in The Tempest in 2016.

It was a journey into previously uncharted territory, but it clearly paid off when the three plays, performed together as the Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar’s temporary theatre in King’s Cross in 2016, was met with resounding critical acclaim, hailed by the Observer’s critic as ‘one of the most important theatrical events of the past twenty years’.

Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

Did such a positive response from the public and the profession surprise her? ‘Definitely,’ replies Harriet. ‘I initially expected a lot more hostility – even ridicule. But from the kick-off, we received wonderful reactions. If there were some dissenters back in 2012, by the time we moved on to the second and third play, we had built up a great following. And certainly among younger people, men and women, there was a feeling of “Women playing men? What’s the problem?”‘.

‘Most of the people I have heard from have said that they felt inspired and liberated by our productions,’ Harriet continues. ‘They told me that they had seen the plays in a completely fresh light and that there was a great significance to the work, beyond providing an evening’s entertainment. They also felt that the shows had marked a huge cultural shift in the world at large. I hope that doesn’t sound over-reaching.’

Naturally not everybody was sympathetic to what Harriet, Lloyd and the other members of the company were trying to achieve.

‘There are people, of course, who simply hate the idea of women playing men; but they mostly didn’t come to see the productions,’ reports Harriet. ‘Those that did come grudgingly at first often said that they were pleasantly surprised. I know that we usually only hear from people who have enjoyed the play. Those who haven’t liked it tend not to say anything, so I am well aware that we didn’t convert everybody. However, I’d argue that the strength of the reaction from young people outweighs the more negative reactions.’

Harriet Walter as King Henry IV in Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse, 2014 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

It could be argued that such experiments in gender-blind casting work best in period plays with a historical setting, where the characters, the language and locations are already at one remove from our own. Can a non-naturalistic approach to gender in casting work just as well in the staging of contemporary plays as it has done in Shakespeare?

‘This I am not so sure about,’ replies Harriet. ‘I think that it is more important to get new writers to create 360-degree female characters in new plays. The nature of Shakespeare’s plays depends more on the actors’ ability to live through language and communicate some universal truths that have not changed since Shakespeare’s day and don’t depend on naturalistic casting. The modern classics – the plays of Pinter and Beckett – belong in very specific worlds, created in the imaginations of those playwrights, and there would be complex arguments about the pros and cons of altering the gender of any of the characters. Change one brick and a lot of the meaning comes tumbling down. People need to be very clear on the reasons for changing the gender of a role – or the gender of the actor playing it. The important thing is that each production has a coherent motive for its casting scheme and that things are not done just for the sake of being trendy or different. It is important not to confuse an audience. If the casting lacks coherence, audiences can sniff it out and become alienated very quickly.’

Given her long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a working life steeped in Shakespeare, Harriet must feel a certain kinship with the playwright. Does she sense that he liked women?

‘It’s hard to be sure. I think that in general he loved them and was fascinated by them. He gave them many of the best insights – the most witty and wise arguments. But he also had some of the main characters express the sexist prejudices of the age – that women were fickle, vengeful or feeble. Whether he himself agreed with those voices is hard to say. He was human and he lived at a particular time.’

Harriet Walter at Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006 (photo by Pascal Molliere, © RSC)

For the moment, Harriet has a busy schedule, meeting her various film and television commitments, and you get the feeling that it will take something special to tempt her back to the stage.

‘At the moment, I’m very happy being in the audience watching things that I wouldn’t necessarily want to do myself. I want to do work that will break boundaries, and I want to keep going and be permanently challenged in what I do.’

In her professional life, Harriet has a fear of becoming stuck, like a musical instrument that plays the same notes over and over again. In a sense, her ground-breaking work with Phyllida Lloyd enabled her to find a different tune. But she has also challenged herself repeatedly as an author: her book Other People’s Shoes is an elegant analysis of what an actor is and does, while Facing It is a series of reflections on images of older women whose faces and lives have inspired her.

Actors, self-evidently, have other people’s words with which to go to war, so it must be a daunting task to have to invent your own.

‘I’m not saying that acting is easy, compared with writing, but you do develop a skill that reminds you that you know how to do it. And after you have reached the age of fifty, you feel the need to challenge yourself. I think we can all get a bit complacent at that age.’

Has she any further writing plans?

‘I enjoy writing but I think I need a break from writing about work,’ she reveals. ‘Perhaps I should try fiction. I have less reason to think I could do that, but I’m tempted to try.’

You heard it here first!


Harriet Walter’s Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women is published by Nick Hern Books in paperback and ebook formats.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

Look out for more Anniversary Interviews and promotions coming soon. Subscribe to our newsletter now to make sure you don’t miss out!

Author photograph by Georgia Oetker.

 

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‘Hockey sticks and navy knicks’: Kath Gotts on Crush: The Musical

Gotts, Kath 2015-2_croppedWhen Kath Gotts and Maureen Chadwick started writing a musical about the pupils at an all-girls school rebelling against their tyrannical headmistress, they didn’t know it would take decades to reach the stage. But when it finally opened in 2015,  Crush was acclaimed as a hilarious blend of Malory Towers and St Trinian’s – a family-friendly hit with a touch of subversiveness. Here, as the script is published for others to perform, composer-lyricist Kath Gotts explains the appeal of schoolgirl fiction, and why it’s perfect for a musical…

Crush has a short title, but it took a long time – possibly a record-breakingly long time – to reach the stage.

Maureen Chadwick 2015

Maureen Chadwick

The show was first conceived when I was not that long out of school uniform myself, when the tragi-comic emotional territory of first love and adolescent angst was sadly rather fresh in my memory. Maureen [Chadwick, who wrote the book for the musical] and I decided we wanted to write a musical together and with our shared delight in Fred and Ginger movies we had a mission to write our own version of a romantic comedy in classic book musical form. Inspired by our love of the British tradition of schoolgirl fiction – from Malory Towers to St Trinian’s, and the old Girl’s Own annuals – we thought it would be great fun to write a musical set in that world. In fact, we were amazed that nobody else had got there before us and that here was this whole rich genre as yet unpilfered by musical-theatre writers, with its own distinctive milieu and lingo, and the schoolgirl crush providing new love-story material for musical-comedy treatment.

We entered the very embryonic Crush (then called Sugar and Spice) for the 1989 Vivian Ellis Prize for New Musicals – three songs and a synopsis. We were thrilled to find we’d made it into the televised final. When asked to describe the show I cheerfully explained that it was a traditional romantic musical – just a simple case of ‘girl meets girl, girl loses girl, one girl finds a boy and the other one finds another girl’. We’d heard that Cameron Mackintosh was rooting for us, but on the big day itself he unfortunately wasn’t there in person and the rest of the panel seemed altogether perplexed by a love song from one schoolgirl to another – one suggested that he could imagine the show appealing to the ‘old men in macs’ brigade. Naturally, we didn’t win.

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Catherine Hayworth, Eleanor Brown, Georgia Oldman and Emma Harrold in Crush. Photo by Robert Day.

Crush isn’t so much a musical of its time as a musical that has had to wait its time. Back in the late eighties and nineties the very notion of celebrating a romance between schoolgirls was seen as radically subversive. Most of the cast of the 2015 premiere at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry weren’t even born in 1988 when Section 28 came into force. Finally, however, the new Crush has emerged into a world where a light, frothy, show featuring a schoolgirl romance can be seen as what we always wanted it to be – a big-hearted show for all the family.

The love story in Crush is innocently played out – it represents a quest for self-expression and the claiming of one’s own true identity. Our story is set in a hitherto idealistic and liberal girls’ boarding school – Dame Dorothea Dosserdale School for Girls – which has recently been taken over by the tyrannical and repressive headmistress, Miss Bleacher (who has a couple of great belter numbers to help make her point). The first targets for her new moral crusade are two girls accused of ‘indecent and unnatural behaviour’ in the art room after hours, and the race is on to identify and expel them.

Sara Crowe, Georgia Oldman, James Meunier, Rosemary Ashe and Kirsty Malpass. Photo by Robert Day.

Like Elle Woods – the not-so-dumb blonde in Legally Blonde – or Tracy Turnblad – the not-so-slim girl with a beehive in Hairspray – our heroine Susan Smart is an outsider, a clever scholarship girl who loves another girl. Only it’s the wrong one. Susan has to navigate her way through her first lessons in love and learn to stand up for herself and her right to love whomever she chooses. And everyone else has to stand up and be counted too in order to save the school and everything it stands for. The girls are aided in this by the trusty Deputy Head, Miss Austin, and by a mysterious new games mistress, Miss Givings – who rallies their team spirit in the tap-dancing hockey number ‘Navy Knicks’. There’s also Benny the oddjob boy, who is not at all who he seems and is set to throw a romantic cat among the pigeons in Act Two when we run away to London…

The musical style has a nod to Irving Berlin and Julian Slade mixed with early sixties pop and some jazzy overtones. I like to think there’s a flavour of innocent sophistication to the songs! Steven Edis has done some wonderful arrangements for a band of seven players and it’s a thoroughly joyful musical – plenty of laughs, smiles and a few tears along the way.

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Georgia Oldman, Charlotte Miranda-Smith and Stephanie Clift. Photo by Robert Day.

Like our previous musical, Bad Girls The Musical [which premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2006, before transferring to the West End in 2007), Crush is written for a predominantly female cast. Both shows are set in all-female environments – Bad Girls is set in a women’s prison – where the action and stories are driven by the female characters. If you apply the Bechdel test to either of these shows – does it (1) feature at least two roles for women who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than a man – they pass with flying colours! Professor Rosemary Auchmuty – who wrote a piece for the Crush programme, reproduced in the published playtext – has written extensively about how the all-female worlds of schoolgirl fiction have been so empowering to the young women who have devoured those books since they first started appearing as early as the eighteenth century. They showed that girls and women could be the protagonists in their own stories, and that whatever derring-do was required, they too could fulfil those roles.

The world of schoolgirl fiction is ripe for musical comedy, but it also has great heart and integrity. A lot of people assume that Daisy Pulls It Off was a musical – but it actually only included the school song.  Crush takes on some of that same flavour but is less of a direct parody. We always used to say that we wanted our artistic style to be ‘subversion by seduction’. In other words, make whatever you’re doing thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable and get your message across with a smile. Crush is an idealistic show – but it’s not simplistic. Like a good pint of Guinness, there are creamy bubbles on top but a deeply delicious pint underneath.

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Brianna Ogunbawo, Charlotte Miranda-Smith, Eleanor Brown, Sara Crowe, Stephanie Clift, Catherine Hayworth, Emma Harrold and Jennifer Potts. Photo by Robert Day.

We were really thrilled when Nick Hern approached us about publishing Crush. Not only is it a wonderful culmination of its long journey to the stage, but more importantly it also represents the possibility of new beginnings for the show, with potential productions by amateur theatre companies, schools and youth groups. We know from our workshops and from our first production that Crush is a really fun show to perform, and we can’t wait for others to have a crack at it.

So ‘Put on your navy knicks, Pick up your hockey sticks’ and let’s all say ‘Bully Off’ for Crush!


Watch the trailer for the 2015 touring production of Crush:


FormattedCrush: The Musical, the complete book and lyrics by Maureen Chadwick and Kath Gotts, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP of £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

‘Dare to fashion yourself’: Diane Samuels on her new play Poppy + George

Samuels, Diane3Diane Samuels, author of the powerful modern classic Kindertransport, set out to write a new play about female pirates… and ended up with a beguiling romance about cross-dressing and music hall. Poppy + George, which opened at Watford Palace Theatre this month, is all about identity, she explains – do we let ourselves be shaped by the assumptions of others, or do we choose to fashion ourselves?

Poppy + George, my new play, opened earlier this month at Watford Palace Theatre in a beautiful production with costumes and design by Ruari Murchison and original music by Gwyneth Herbert. It was a wonderful night, with a sense of well-earned satisfaction at the realisation of much hard work and leaps of the imagination, and not a little courage, all the more satisfying because its journey to this moment has turned out to be as unexpected and regenerative as the story of reinvention it tells.

It started in the early 1990s when I was writer-in-residence at Theatre Centre, researching the lives, loves, adventures and misdeeds of women pirates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What compelled me most was the significant part their choice of dress played in creating their identity and expressing their ‘free’ lifestyles. This led me to look more closely at ways in which people, women in particular, across the centuries have dressed or been dressed to delineate their roles.

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Poppy + George at Watford Palace Theatre. Photo by Richard Lakos

I found myself, by twists and turns, ending up in 1919, the year after the conclusion of the First World War. This was a time of great change, shifting of national boundaries, loosening of class structures and stirring of gender distinctions – corsets were becoming shorter and less rigid before they started to disappear completely in the 1920s; hems were shortening; and trousers, although still almost exclusively male attire, had been donned here and there, women wearing them while covering men’s jobs during the war years. In the play, Smith – tailor and costumier, born a Jew in Russia and then trained in his craft in the Imperial court in China, in whose workshop in London’s East End the action takes place – asks the young heroine, Poppy, ‘Are you the dummy or the tailor?’ She is affronted and replies, ‘How am I a dummy?’ To which he responds, ‘Either you are fashioned by what you’re told or think you’re told you can be… or you dare to fashion yourself.’

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Photo by Richard Lakos

After running research sessions around the country looking at how we are fashioned and might fashion ourselves – including one in which a 16-year-old boy asked nervously if he might try on a wedding dress and did so with glee and amazement after we closed the doors and drew the curtains – I wrote a one-act play entitled Turncoat. An extensive tour took Smith’s magical workshop, where clothes and identities are created, into a wide range of venues including school halls, community centres and theatres throughout England and Wales.

In 2015, Brigid Larmour, Artistic Director at Watford Palace Theatre, asked if she might read a selection of my plays with a view to producing one. Turncoat leapt out at her as particularly relevant today, even more so than when it had first been written. I was invited to look afresh and write a new full-length play, developed from the earlier version.

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Photo by Richard Lakos

The Palace had started life at the beginning of the twentieth century as a music hall, so I was excited to develop further the theatricality of the piece, adding to the songs, pastiches of music hall ditties, that are sung by the character Tommy Johns, a performer and female impersonator in that hugely popular tradition of ‘dames’ and drag. Underlying his humour is a sense of devastation, for Tommy has returned from a round of duty at the Front during the war, and he is struggling to revive his act and his life in this time of ‘so-called peace’. We meet him at the beginning of the play searching for a name for his latest creation, a maid with “‘er fluffy duster in ‘er ‘and”, encouraged by Smith, who is constructing his costume, and dashing chauffeur George Sampson, who has his uniforms made at the workshop.

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Photo by Richard Lakos

The names people go by are central to the piece, and so I wasn’t surprised when I was asked to find a new title for the play. ‘Poppy + George’ popped into my head immediately. This meant also changing the name of the heroine from Melody to Poppy, a young woman from the north of England who arrives in London with an open, curious mind and a desire to make her way independently in the world. She becomes a seamstress and assistant to Smith and falls in love with George, which leads to her whole world being turned upside down. And so the symbolism of the poppy, with its associations with transformation and dreams (it was not selected as a symbol of memorial for the fallen in the war until 1921, two years after the play is set), has unfolded powerfully throughout the re-writing process, particularly the way the seeds lie dormant in the soil, perhaps even for centuries, and only spring into life and bloom when the earth is churned up and disrupted.

In the few days since the play has opened, it has been heart-warming to receive so many messages of appreciation. One reviewer described it as ‘winningly generous and big-hearted’, with many seeing the modern relevance of this threshold moment nearly a century ago. As Brigid Larmour wrote, ‘Diane has somehow tapped into the zeitgeist debates about gender and identity, in a way that is wonderfully warm and accessible to a wider audience. The music hall element works really well, and is incredibly playful, and the play seems to be leaving people very moved as well as entertained.’


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

We’re very excited to have Poppy + George on our list, and it’s sure to be hugely popular with amateur theatre groups. It offers two wonderful, fully-rounded central roles for women, it’s funny, it’s moving and it’s full of charm and atmosphere. Anyone who has enjoyed staging Diane’s brilliant Kindertransport  – or Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, or Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby – should certainly give Poppy + George a twirl.

To register your interest, drop me a line at tamara@nickhernbooks.co.uk, or call me on 020 8749 4953.


FormattedPoppy + George is at Watford Palace Theatre until Saturday 27 February.

The playtext is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% discount) plus p&p, visit the NHB website here.

‘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.

Girls centre stage: Lucy Kerbel on building a new canon of writing for young actors

Good roles for young female actors are in short supply, so Tonic Theatre set out to change that by commissioning a series of new plays with mainly or entirely female casts for schools and youth theatre groups to perform. As the first three plays in the Platform series are published by Nick Hern Books and made available for performance, Tonic’s Lucy Kerbel explains why things have to change, and how you can get involved…

Commissioning and publishing a range of new plays for young actors which put girls and their stories centre stage is something I have wanted to do for a long time and, since Tonic Theatre was formed in 2011, it is an idea I have been looking to get off the ground. Tonic exists to support UK theatre to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and its repertoires; essentially our mission is to catalyse a culture-shift in how theatre thinks and works, so that talented women are given the same levels of support and opportunity as talented men.

While it has pretty big aspirations, Tonic is a tiny organisation; we have one-and-a-bit members of staff, no core funding, and a very modest financial turnover. Because we have such limited funds and capacity, we have to use these wisely and consequently are extremely strategic about where we target our efforts. I spend much time looking to identify ‘pressure points’ – places where, with a bit of work, a far bigger ripple effect can be achieved. For this reason, much of our work to date has been focused on partnerships with some of the largest organisations in the country, because if they change, others will follow. But youth drama has always been clear to me as one of the greatest pressure points of all. It is the engine room of the theatre industry; tomorrow’s theatre-makers (not to mention audience members) are to be found today in youth-theatre groups, university drama societies and school drama clubs all over the country.

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

If we can challenge their assumptions about the role of women’s stories, voices, and ideas in drama, then change in the profession – in time – will be immeasurably easier to achieve.

Beyond this strategic interest in youth drama, I was convinced that girls were getting a raw deal and I found that troubling. Having worked previously as a youth-theatre director, I was familiar with the regular challenge of trying to find scripts that had adequate numbers of female roles for all the committed and talented girls that wanted to take part. In nearly all the various youth-drama groups I worked in across a five-year period, there were significantly more girls than boys. However, when it came to finding big-cast, age-appropriate plays for them to work on, I was constantly frustrated by how few there seemed to be that provided enough opportunity for the girls, its most loyal and committed participants. When looking at contemporary new writing for young actors to perform, one could be mistaken for thinking that youth drama was a predominantly male pursuit, rather than the other way round.

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Aside from the practicalities of matching the number of roles to the number of girls in any one drama group, the nature of writing for female characters was something I struggled to get excited about. While there were some notable examples, often the writing for female characters seemed somewhat lacklustre. They tended to be characters at the periphery of the action rather than its heart, with far less to say and do than their male counterparts, and with a tendency towards being one‑dimensional, rather than complex or vibrant, funny or surprising. Why was it that in the twenty-first century the quality as well as the quantity of roles being written for girls still seemed to lag behind those for boys so demonstrably?

Keen to check I wasn’t just imagining this imbalance, Tonic conducted a nationwide research study looking into opportunities for girls in youth drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. The research was written up into a report, Swimming in the shallow end, and is published on the Tonic Theatre website. Not only did the research confirm my worst fears – more depressingly, it exceeded them. While many of the research participants were vocal about the social, artistic and emotional benefits that participation in youth-drama productions can have on a young person’s life, so too were they – to quote the report – on ‘the erosion to self-esteem, confidence and aspiration when these opportunities are repeatedly held out of reach… [and] for too many girls, this is the case’.

But despite the doom and gloom of the research findings, there remained an exciting proposition; to write stories that weren’t currently being put on stage, and to foreground – rather than ignore – the experiences, achievements and world-view of young women, perhaps the group above all others in British society whose situation has altered so dramatically and excitingly over the past hundred or so years. Tonic commissioned writers I was most fascinated to see respond to the brief set to them: a large-cast play written specifically for performance by young actors, with mainly or entirely female casts and in which the female characters should be no less complex or challenging than the male characters. I asked them to write in such a way that these plays could be performed by young people anywhere in the country, and that there should be scope for every school, college and youth-theatre group performing the play to make a production their own.

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

At Tonic our hope is that the first Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – will be just the beginning of a longer trajectory of work for us. Although it entails further fundraising mountains to climb, we plan to commission and publish more plays over future years. Our aspiration is that over time Platform will become a new canon of writing for young actors and one that puts girls and their lives centre stage. I dearly hope that they will be taken up by groups all over the country and performed for many years to come.

‘Drama is an important tool for building confidence and empowering young people. Platform will give girls opportunity to access these benefits as much as their male counterparts.’ – Moira Buffini

A few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Tamara von Werthern

We’re incredibly proud and excited to be supporting Tonic Theatre’s important work in addressing gender inequality in the theatre. I’m sure these plays will be picked up and performed by youth theatres, schools and drama clubs across the country, as they really do address an urgent need for more good parts for young women. I’ve been asked so many times to recommend plays that offer young women strong roles, and it’s wonderful that now we can start licensing three new plays that fit the bill exactly. I urge everyone who works with youth theatre or teaches drama at a school to pick up these plays and give them a go!”


All three Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – are published on 11 June 2015 by Nick Hern Books.

Buying from an educational institution or youth group? You can get all three Platform plays at a special discount price – head to the Platform website for more information.

The plays are all available immediately for amateur performance. To apply for performing rights, visit the Nick Hern Books Plays to Perform website or contact our Performing Rights Department.

For more information about Tonic Theatre, visit www.tonictheatre.co.uk.

Lucy Kerbel photograph by Slav Kirichok