‘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.

Advertisements

I Am Shakespeare: by Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance

photo: Simon Annand

As actor Mark Rylance returns to Shakespeare’s Globe to play the title part in Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night, he reveals how his interest in the controversial Shakespeare authorship debate – the subject of his first play I Am Shakespeare, published this month by Nick Hern Books – led to the charge that he had betrayed Shakespeare. Nothing could be further from the truth, he argues in an introduction to the play, together with an extract presenting the case for one of the leading contenders.

The Big Secret Live ‘I Am Shakespeare’ Webcam Daytime Chatroom Show was created in the summer of 2007 for the Chichester Festival Theatre. Greg Ripley-Duggan produced the play, and subsequent to our run in Chichester, organised a brief tour to Warwickshire, Oxford and Cambridge University, amongst other places. This was not unlike taking a play that questioned Robert Burns’s identity as a poet, to Scotland. But, for some reason, the Shakespeare authorship controversy pierces deep to the heart of identity for some people, wherever you play. It was the extreme reaction of otherwise reasonable people that inspired this play. Their efforts to repress my curiosity, and frighten others away from the mystery, were funny in retrospect but extremely trying at the time, especially when I was Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London between 1995 and 2005.

I say that the play was ‘created’, as I had only written the first act and some of the second when the cast gathered in the Soho Laundry to begin rehearsals that summer. Under Matthew Warchus’s excellent direction, which included many improvements and developments of the script and idea, we then created the play. All of the original cast, especially Sean Foley who played Barry, improvised lines and situations, which I later included in the text. I am indebted to this spirit of adventure and collaboration, which, by the way, has always been my image of an aspect of the creation of the Shakespeare plays as well.

I Am Shakespeare (jacket)

Needless to say, I love Shakespeare – the work and the author – more than any other human art I have ever encountered. I have made my living, in many more ways than an actor’s pay check, on Shakespeare, since I was sixteen years old (which was thirty years ago at the time I wrote this play). I do not believe, as was charged against me at the Globe, that I am biting the hand that fed me. I am attempting to shake it. The fact that Shakespeare’s work will all disappear from the universe one day is more awe-inspiring to me than my own death.

Extract from I Am Shakespeare…

Act One Scene Three

The First Guest Ever: William Shakespeare

[Frank, a schoolteacher aged around fifty, has just begun the weekly broadcast of his chat-show about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, which goes out live via webcam from his garage in Maidstone.] There are two knocks on the door.

FRANK. Who’s there?

SHAKSPAR. Frank.

FRANK. Who is it?

WILLIAM SHAKSPAR enters.

SHAKSPAR. Hello, Frank.

FRANK. Who are you?

SHAKSPAR. Who do you think I am?

FRANK. Who do you think you are?

SHAKSPAR. No, who do you think I am? And more to the point, why do you think I am anyone other than who I actually am?

FRANK. What?

SHAKSPAR. Why do you do it, Frank?

FRANK. Why do I do what?

SHAKSPAR. Why do you get yourself in such a twist about who I am? Haven’t you got better things to do? You don’t need this to make you special. You should be proud of being just an ordinary good old teacher like your father, Tom.

FRANK. How do you know I’m a teacher? How do you know my father’s name?

SHAKSPAR. So what’s this all about? Books, books, books. Do you know there are more books about my play Hamlet than there are about the Bible? But then, I had a head start. There wasn’t an English Bible until a few years after Hamlet.

FRANK. Have you been sent here by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust?

SHAKSPAR. No.

FRANK. The Shakespeare Institute?

SHAKSPAR. No.

FRANK begins to speak.

No.

FRANK. Is this some sort of joke?

SHAKSPAR. You can’t fathom me, can you? Do you really think people have to be extraordinary themselves to do extraordinary things? I lived a thousand extraordinary lives in my writing – so many kings, lovers, murderers. They tired me out, Frank. But that’s not who I am.

FRANK. You dress up as William Shakespeare, break into my studio, hijack my show and then…

SHAKSPAR. It’s time you stopped, Frank. Please. Let it go. I don’t want to be man of the millennium. I just want a good millennium sleep. Every time you challenge me, some fool starts another penetrating biography: ‘Closer to Shakespeare’, ‘Shakespeare, The Player’, ‘Shakespeare, The Lost Years’, ‘Shakespeare for All Time’. Each one’s like an electric shock in my sleep, waking me up again. If I had known what it’s like to be a ghost, I never would have given them such small parts.

We see BARRY [Frank’s neighbour, age 35-45, a pop star who once had a top-twenty hit entitled ‘I’m a Sputnik Love God’] running round the outside of the garage.

FRANK. You think you can come in here, pretending to be William Shakespeare, sabotage my show…

BARRY rushes in.

Scene Four

The Interruption of the Neighbour’s Musical Genius

SHAKSPAR looks at the books.

BARRY enters, making sure he doesn’t forget a song he’s just composed in his head.

BARRY. I’ve got a song, Frank. After I rang you I went out with the guttering and BAM! I’VE GOT IT! After twenty-two years, my follow-up! ‘Long Green Summer Grass’. It’s got it all. Love in the afternoon. The great flood. It’s like a green love anthem. Sort of Al Gore meets Barry White!

SHAKSPAR. Hello, Barry.

BARRY sees SHAKSPAR.

BARRY. What are you doing?

FRANK. What are you doing?

BARRY. Who’s that?

FRANK. Yes. Who’s that?

BARRY. Why?

FRANK. Why what?

BARRY. What?

FRANK. Why?

BARRY. Why do something like this without telling me? Hiring a lookalike. I don’t think that’s very professional, you know, to keep secrets from your musical director. I thought we were working together on this. Oh, fuck it! Fuck it! I’ve forgotten the fucking song! I’ve forgotten the fucking tune! Look what you’ve done. I can’t remember it. It’s gone.

SHAKSPAR (singing).

Come on, baby, come on, baby, don’t say maybe,
When you’re way down, let me lay down –

BARRY. That’s my song!

SHAKSPAR (singing).

Lay down with you in the summer grass,
In the long green summer grass.

BARRY. That’s the song I just made up!

SHAKSPAR (singing).

I’m changing my drains down,
So, baby, when it rains down,
Ain’t no summer hose ban’s gonna turn,
Gonna burn, my long green summer grass to brown.

I thought the repeats helped the rhythm.

BARRY. Who is this guy, Frank?

FRANK. Why don’t you both just stop pretending. Get out. Go on, get out, the both of you.

BARRY. I never met the man before in my life! I swear on Brian May’s plectrum!

Scene Five

The First Interview Ever with William Shakespeare

SHAKSPAR. May I just finish this before I go?

BARRY. Do you know any more of my songs?

SHAKSPAR. Yes, but what I like best is that children’s book you’re working on.

FRANK. You never told me you were working on a children’s book.

BARRY. I never told anyone about Teddy and the Philosopher’s Guitar. What are you, like, a professional mind-reader? Is that your act?

SHAKSPAR. In a way, I suppose I always was, but since I died…

FRANK. Listen, you Shakespeare Kissogram, lookalike fake, bald-headed bladder-faced Midlands Pranny…

BARRY. Hey, Frank, why don’t you give him a chance to explain himself.

SHAKSPAR. Because his mind is closed, Barry. He doesn’t want to know who wrote the plays. He wants to know he’s right. And I think he’s probably got some kind of hang-up about common people creating great works of art.

SHAKSPAR gets up to go.

BARRY. Now you’re talking.

FRANK. No I haven’t.

SHAKSPAR. I’m off now. (Speaking into the camera.) May I just say thank you to everyone, actors and audiences everywhere, for making my plays the big success they are. I never imagined they would last so long.

FRANK (also into the camera). Because he never imagined them in the first place.

SHAKSPAR. I think I might go up to Stratford-upon-Avon and visit the Birthplace Trust. What’s the best way to get there?

BARRY. How did you get here?

SHAKSPAR. I don’t know… something to do with the internet and the weather? Look, I’ve written something for you, Frank. Just to show you there’s no hard feelings. One of your favourite sonnets. You wouldn’t believe the money you can get for any old document connected to me nowadays.

SHAKSPAR puts it on the desk.

FRANK. Oh, very impressive. Phoney Elizabethan writing. You’ve been up all night rehearsing this.

SHAKSPAR. Don’t you want a handwritten sonnet?

FRANK. No, I don’t want your lousy homework.

FRANK tears it up and throws it in his face. Sniffs him.

By the way, I don’t know if your friends have told you, but you have got severe hygiene issues.

SHAKSPAR. I’ll make my own way. Fare thee well, Barry.

BARRY. Fare thee well, Will.

SHAKSPAR. I’m retired; I just want to be left alone, like Prospero. Let your indulgence set me free.

FRANK. If Shakespeare’s so like Prospero, why didn’t he educate his daughters?

SHAKSPAR. They didn’t want to be educated.

FRANK. Why didn’t he write or receive any letters?

SHAKSPAR. I conducted my business in person.

FRANK. Why did Shakespeare never write about his home town, Stratford?

SHAKSPAR. Which would you rather go and hear: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or The Slightly Embarrassing Day in the Life of John, Glove Maker of Stratford?

He goes out and they carry on talking around and out in front of the garage.

FRANK. People in Stratford had no idea he was a playwright?

SHAKSPAR. I kept myself to myself.

FRANK. Then, why was he so litigious?

SHAKSPAR. What’s any of this got to do with my work?

FRANK. That’s exactly my question.

BARRY. Will, you know you can see inside my head, can you see inside Frank’s?

SHAKSPAR. When? In the past, present or future? Once you die, your existence is not bound by time or space.

BARRY. What was Frank doing last Tuesday at, say, 11:37 in the morning?

SHAKSPAR. He was in a classroom, teaching my play, Romeo and Juliet, and he was just about to confiscate a mobile telephone from a young student named James who was texting a friend beneath his desk.

BARRY. What did the text say?

FRANK. It doesn’t matter.

SHAKSPAR. ‘Tosser Charlton is a dickhead.’ In the First Folio collection of my plays, Ben Jonson refers to the author as the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’; there’s a reference to the author’s ‘Stratford Monument’, in Stratford-upon-Avon; and, my fellow actors, Heminges and Condell, also refer to me as the author. How do you explain all that? Why? If I wasn’t the author, why? Until you can answer that, you haven’t got an answer, you haven’t even got a question!

SHAKSPAR goes out into the evening.

NHB are proud to publish Mark Rylance’s debut play, I Am Shakespeare. To order your copy at the special price of £7.99 (rrp £9.99) with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the promo code box at checkout.

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

“This is a lively and very funny play anchored in the present but exploring the secrets of the past. It’s great for companies who have a number of strong male performers and enjoy performing in costume. It’s a light-hearted piece that asks fundamental questions about identity and the nature of genius, and will be enjoyed by all audiences, particularly those with some knowledge of Shakespeare’s work (though, as the extract above shows, it wears its considerable learning lightly). And those of you who have seen or performed Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem will more than likely want to read a stage play by the actor who was the original Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron.”

THE GOD OF SOHO Special: with director Raz Shaw

Raz Shaw, director of The God of Soho

Raz Shaw, director of The God of Soho

In part two of our special feature on The God of Soho, director Raz Shaw tells us what it was like bringing Chris Hannan’s wild and raucous script to life for Shakespeare’s Globe.

You have previously directed productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet for the Shakespeare’s Globe, but this is your first contemporary play. How did you come to direct The God of Soho for the Globe’s distinctive space?

Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe phoned me up in November last year. He sent me Chris’s treatment version, which was gloriously mad – it made wonderful sense and at the same time didn’t make any sense. It was brave and courageous and rude, and funny and moving – and yet, in some ways, indecipherable. I thought there was so much in it, it was bursting at the seams. I had no idea what the end result might be, but there was something about it that was intriguing, exciting, unique and scary. And I only like to do work that scares me or there’s no point, I think.

'The God of Soho' Rehearsal Shot

Iris Roberts (Clem). Photo: Simon Kane

What has proven the biggest challenge, or surprise, in bringing the script to life for the first time?

I’ve discovered that doing a new play at the Globe means two things. One, you have to be very respectful to the author’s words. And two, you have to embrace the Globe in all its forms. Sometimes that means you need to direct a scene in a slightly different way, from how you might have done had it been indoors in a ‘conventional’ theatre. I think that what the Globe gives any play, especially a new play, is an extra resonance and relevance because it reaches out immediately to the audience, and the audience responds right there in the moment. In a really positive way, we hear the words more, we feel the emotions more and we listen to the story of the play more. So for me, the biggest challenge has been to imagine where it needs to sit – how it can resonate best in the Globe. I think the biggest surprise to me is that despite its huge moments – very funny moments, rude moments, very sexy moments – it’s actually about tiny emotional details. The story of the play is very real, it has three very real love stories; the biggest challenge is to make sure we focus on that and at the same time allow it to breathe in a theatre the size and style of the Globe.

With its large cast, sharp topicality and brash language, do you imagine that The God of Soho will be a popular choice for amateur performance in the future?

I do! It’ll be a fun journey to take. There are eleven actors in our cast, with two what are called ‘supernumerary actors’, who only come in for the final rehearsals and do simple, non-acting things, like opening doors and all that kind of stuff – but still feel part of the cast. With thirteen actors, and seven in the band, there are over 120 costumes in this show, as there are actually loads of characters.

The God of Soho: trailer image

Click to view The God of Soho trailer

Part of the fun of doing a play with loads of roles is that all the actors can have a main character, and then they can all kind of let go and have mini-characters too. For instance, there’s a song in the play called ‘Sexier than Sex’, which is very rude. It’s about the Goddess of Love’s journey into King’s Cross and Soho for the first time, and she’s looking for something to hold onto because she’s been rejected by her lover in heaven. One of the things she is hoping to find out is what sex is on Earth. The song is quite vulgar, and requires an assortment of characters from the sex trade, from prostitutes onwards, and would certainly be lots of fun for amateur performers.  Almost every single one of those little parts has something about it that would make it unique and fun to play. Even if those parts don’t have many lines, they certainly have some memorable moments.

Chris Hannan’s new playThe God of Soho – opens tonight (27 August) at Shakespeare’s Globe, running till 30 September. Click here to purchase tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript alongside this production – to order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

The God of Soho: jacket

The God of Soho by Chris Hannan (£9.99)

*The God of Soho ticket + drink offer!*
A Yard ticket & a Post-Show Cocktail for just £10 when booking directly through the venue. Use the code ‘pcdsftw’ or quote ‘Something for the Weekend’ when calling the Shakespeare’s Globe box office on 020 7401 9919. Cannot be claimed retrospectively. Usual terms and conditions apply. Purchasers must be over the age of 18. Please note Yard tickets are standing only, but have the best view of the stage.

THE GOD OF SOHO Special: with author Chris Hannan

Chris Hannan

Chris Hannan, author of The God of Soho (photo: Carol Gordon)

Chris Hannan’s new play for Shakespeare’s Globe, The God of Soho, is a wickedly funny morality tale for the modern world. Sexy, feisty and real, it is a story about love at its dirtiest, maddest and most bittersweet. Here, the author talks about writing the play specifically for the Globe’s unique stage.

When the Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Dominic Dromgoole, asked me to write a new play for his wonderful theatre, I spent a couple of years finding polite ways to say no.

It seemed too odd to put contemporary characters in contemporary clothes onto an authentic reproduction of an Elizabethan stage. Wouldn’t it just look like some ropey time-travel story?

Clearly, this was a space that called for big characters and big emotions and I began to sketch out the idea for The God of Soho, setting the story in a celebrity world where my celebrity couple fought each other in the front pages of the tabloids, hoovered up cocaine in celebrity nightspots and rocked up to the funerals of celebrity friends in dark sunglasses.

Where the Elizabethans had put kings and courtiers on stage, I thought I would put their contemporary equivalents – stars and their publicists. The inherent theatricality of the celebrity world – the constant performing in public – had an irresistible attraction. And of course celebrity worship is now at the core of our culture and economy, so it seemed an ideal topic for such a public space.

Celebrities could not have become the gods and goddesses of our mags and the staple of our news and gossip unless they answered some core need in all of us and The God of Soho is about what that is. It’s about what we worship and do we even know.

The God of Soho: jacket

The God of Soho by Chris Hannan (£9.99)

I kept going to see shows at the Globe to learn about the space and how it works. And, whether it was The Merry Wives of Windsor or Henry IV, I was struck by the magical relationship which exists between the actor and the audience – a frankness, an ease, an equality. Time and again it is a relationship which throws up unrepeatable moments of ‘liveness’.

It happened again during a recent performance of The Mysteries. The actors were telling the story of the Crucifixion – the episode where Judas repents of his betrayal and returns the blood money to Pontius Pilate. 

In the Globe production, the thirty pieces of silver is represented by thirty pence, and the actor playing Pontius Pilate – Matthew Pidgeon – joked amenably with the audience that he didn’t need thirty pence and would be happy to give it to a groundling. But when he placed the coins under the nose of a woman leaning on the front stage she viscerally recoiled, wanting nothing to do with the money or the betrayal.

The actor almost rocked back in amazement, and for me – looking on – the two of them created a moment that was deeply touching because I felt the emotional power of the story and understood that it mattered.

Other playwrights will see it differently, but to me the Globe stage requires a non-realistic story that has grand scale. It is not interested in minor details; it gobbles up narrative at considerable speed and you have to keep feeding it more. It wants movement, sweep. Because there is no stage lighting, you cannot get actors on and off in blackout – they need to be driven by some inner urgency

I enjoyed that. The God of Soho starts out in a heaven which is losing its sense of reality, plunges into a fetishistic Soho and heads out to celebrity Essex. The characters are gods and homeless people and rock stars; and the stage allows those disparate worlds to coexist because the characters are motored by the same story and the same needs. There can be realistic elements, yes, but only so long as they don’t distract from the sense of storyness.

Sections of this post by Chris Hannan first appeared in The Independent (18th August 2011).

Chris Hannan’s new playThe God of Soho – opens this Saturday (27 August) at Shakespeare’s Globe, running till 30 September. Click here to purchase tickets. NHB are proud to publish the playscript alongside this production – to order your copy with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed).

Have you seen the production trailer yet? Click here.

*The God of Soho ticket + drink offer!*
A Yard ticket & a Post-Show Cocktail for just £10 when booking directly through the venue. Use the code ‘pcdsftw’ or quote ‘Something for the Weekend’ when calling the Shakespeare’s Globe box office on 020 7401 9919. Cannot be claimed retrospectively. Usual terms and conditions apply. Purchasers must be over the age of 18. Please note Yard tickets are standing only, but have the best view of the stage.

Coming up next…  THE GOD OF SOHO Special: with director Raz Shaw – on bringing the script to life for the first time.