This winter, Washington, D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Theater is giving audiences a glorious celebration of why theater matters. Nell Gwynn is a boisterous, riotous romp that conveys theater’s sheer delight.
The play is recent—written by Jessica Swale in 2015—but focuses on the Restoration actor-ess (as we learn) who transformed theater into an arena where women began to be cast to play women’s roles, rather than the tradition of men-playing-women.
The real Nell Gwynn sold oranges at the Drury Lane Theater, hawking her fruits with a loud voice that attracted the attention of the theater’s lead actor. He convinced Nell that she could be happier using that big voice onstage, and she allowed him to train her.
King Charles II’s restoration to the throne in 1660 opened the theaters that had been closed by Oliver Cromwell’s Protestant rule, and people were ready to embrace entertainment with great zeal. Nell’s revolutionary presence onstage, rather than the usual men pretending to be women, became wildly popular. The King became her biggest fan, and Nell became his long-time mistress.
First performed in London in 2015, the Olivier-winning Nell Gwynn is a gorgeous production at the Folger. The stage is framed by a vibrant red velvet curtain, and actors are swathed in Mariah Anzaldo Hale’s fabulous costumes that capture the Restoration’s embrace of “finery and foppery.” Nell’s opulent and bawdy career are wonderfully captured by Alison Luff’s portrayal of Nell—madcap, exuberant, and righteously convincing as the woman who revolutionized English theater.
Below: Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen) and Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff)
The company’s chief actor who plays women’s roles (played by Christopher Dinolfo) exclaims, “No one can play a woman like a man!” To which Nell replies to the confused resident playwright John Dryden, “Just think! You can write about real women, real emotion, real feminine feelings and they will all be played by a real woman!”
Right: Allison Luff as Nell Gwynn, and cast
Terrifying yes, but Restoration audiences loved Nell, as they do in the Folger’s production. R.J. Foster is touching and imbued with Royal aplomb as Charles II, and stage veteran Catherine Flye positively revels in her scene-stealing roles as the company’s backstage dresser, and as Nell’s mother, who owns a brothel near the theater.
Restoration theater was noisy and vibrant, with audiences present not only to see what was going on onstage, but amongst themselves. Audiences ate, drank and talked to one another with great glee. The Folger’s Nell Gwynn does a wonderful job conveying that sensibility, though the contemporary audience behaves with great propriety. As director Robert Richmond explains in his Playbill introduction, “This extraordinary woman’s story of survival, vulnerability, tenacity, and honesty could not be more vital in our current cultural conversation.” It is also terrific fun!
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer and Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery
NELL GWYNN will be at the Folger Shakespeare Theater through March 10, 2019. www.folger.edu.