Let's get the important questions out of the way right up front: there is a King Charles Spaniel in Nell Gwynn, Jessica Swale's new play going up at Shakespeare's Globe. She is only in one scene, and she received entrance and exit applause. Her real name is Molly. Her character's name is Oliver Cromwell.
Yes, it's the Restoration: King Charles II is on the throne, the theatres are open again, and actor-managers are trying to figure out how to remake English drama after a ten-year break. Killigrew (Richard Katz), head of the King's Men, learns that his rivals have a brilliant idea, which has recently been given the king's seal of approval: an actress. If they want to compete, they need one, too.
Luckily for him, his leading man Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) has just the girl waiting in the wings. In between making love to her, he's been training up the orange-seller Nell Gwynn (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the art of acting. This tangled mess of motivations-- love, art, economic advantage-- are a tidy preview of the trials to come as Nell charts her ascent from selling oranges to wooing the King of England. The journey is fantastically fun, easily the most unceasingly delightful show at the Globe this summer, but also has a genuine heart.
In the theatre, Nell meets a buoyantly hilarious cast of oddballs, including Graham Butler's neurotic playwright John Dryden, Angus Imrie as the endearingly dumb Ned Spiggett, and Amanda Lawrence's scene-stealingly funny Nancy, the company seamstress and Nell's eventual confidante. The first act is largely a delightful take on the 'putting on a show' trope, interspersed with music and real questions about the nature and purpose of the theatre as it faces a seismic shift.
The play's attempts to insist that the Restoration was the birth of the Strong Female Character, and its repeated dismissal of every single female role of the early modern period as worthless were unconvincing and felt a bit lazy. Killigrew, trying to persuade John Dryden that he'll have more fun writing for real women, points out that because they're real, 'they don't have to be so feminine all the time.' It's a shame that this interesting idea is never quite explored, nor is the alternate subjectivity offered by the first (known) woman writers to have their plays professionally produced (though Aphra Behn gets a shout-out near the end).
However, the first act particularly raised the specter of questions that have been swirling around the theatrical world with particular fervor lately. Former leading lady Edward Kynaston's (Greg Haiste) frantic insistence that the inclusion of those people will only sully the pure, traditional nature of his art sounds all too much like arguments recently used by those who insist that Verdi's Otello must be done in blackface, or The Mikado in yellowface.
Less time is spent filling in the side characters in the court (though Sasha Waddell earns her moment of humanity as Barbara, Lady Castlemaine), with the compelling exception of King Charles. With Nell, David Sturzaker's giddily libidinous Charles can begin to tentatively reveal that his chronic indecision is not a result of stupidity or indifference, but the searing, unfaded memory of his father's execution, and his fear that any decisive action he takes will prove equally fatal. It's not the most rousing defense of Charles's legacy-- but then again, as Nell herself says, who cares? She only troubles herself with the opinions of people she's actually met.
It's this perspective that makes Nell Gwynn, at its heart, a love story: not just the romance of the King and the Orange-Girl, but the many loves of Nell herself-- yes, the king, but also Charles Hart, also her family, also the theatre. Mbatha-Raw is effervescent and charming. She flirts like a master, but performs onstage with an almost self-consciously girlish glee. Her frank acceptance of who she is and what she has been is the source of both her power and her charm, and you never pause to wonder why every man who meets her seems to fall in love.
The show combines to be much more than the sum of its parts. Propped up by excellent performances and sharp direction by Christopher Luscombe, Swale's greatest success is in capturing a chaotic, spirited tone of an era and art in turmoil, eschewing strong political statements (save feminist ones) for weaving a web of characters' rumors and opinions. The blurred lines between onstage and off, audience and actor, stage and court, jumble together to give the entire play an expansive, popular feel that suits the Globe perfectly.
Also there's a dog.