Why two new plays are returning to the life of Highgate’s pretty, witty Nell Gwyn

Elizabeth Mansfield in The Restoration of Nell Gwynn. Picture: Anthony Robling

Elizabeth Mansfield in The Restoration of Nell Gwynn. Picture: Anthony Robling - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton looks at how the Lauderdale House resident, actress and royal mistress has inspired shows at The Park and Apollo theatres.

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn. Picture: Simon Turtle

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn. Picture: Simon Turtle - Credit: Archant

In her heyday she was a feted comic actress and mistress of the king.

Over the centuries, Samuel Pepys’ “pretty witty Nell” has endured as a folk heroine, whose rags to riches life is the subject of two plays opening this month.

Both taking a feminist slant on this colourful survivor, The Restoration of Nell Gwyn at The Park, focuses on the former Lauderdale House resident late in life as King Charles lies dying.

Meanwhile Gemma Arterton stars as a younger Nell in Jessica Swale’s vibrant celebration of restoration theatre and the charm and spirit that made Nell’s name.

Born in Vallance Road, Muswell Hill, Elizabeth Mansfield, stars in and co-writes the Park Theatre show with Steve Trafford, whose usual beat is police procedurals such as Midsomer Murders and Wycliffe.

“It’s a snapshot, a moment in time as Charles lies dying which has thrown Nell into a state of extreme anxiety,” says the former Rhodes Avenue pupil.

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“As a woman in 17th Century England all her status and livelihood depends on the wish of the king who would give some of his mistresses house room and stipends.

“Once he is dead, her position is uncertain. She and her (fictional) maid Marjorie reveal things to each other and become closer, but the undertow of the play is about patriarchy, and the lot of women at a time when wives became their husbands’ property.”

Mansfield, who previously worked with Trafford on an Olivier nominated play about music hall star Marie Lloyd, says it’s threaded through with songs by contemporary composer Henry Purcell and is also very funny.

“Often comedy works well coming out of dark moments.

“Nell was born in the gutter and brought up with vagabonds by a mother who was a prostitute, she was the lowest of the low but was whisked out of that to be the toast of the Playhouse.

“She was clearly very talented. Once she got the chance to get out she grabbed it with both hands. Our play is a celebration of that and what sits underneath; an England that had emerged from the Civil War and was going through interesting times; when groups like the Levellers were calling for universal suffrage and women’s voices began to be heard.”

Swale is also fascinated by a period when women, whose roles were previously played by men, were on stage for the first time, often in “breeches roles” that squeezed actresses into tight trousers.

The play opens with actor Edward Kynaston, famed for playing women’s roles arguing that no woman could play female parts as well as he. ‘You don’t have a real king on stage so why a real woman?’ he moans.

“It wasn’t so much Nell that drew me to this but a very particular moment in time when the grey world of the Puritans who banned theatre had ended and Charles II brought all the fun back, asking for women to be on the stage for the first time. I love theatre and all it stands for and I love that it came back bigger and better than before.

“It was a huge moment in women’s history, a big transition that had an impact on the sort of writing that was being done. What happened when you gave women voices even in roles that were written by men?”

Swale says breeches parts were broadly written for “women to get their legs out” and there were even gratuitious ‘reveal’ scenes where actresses breasts were exposed.

“Playwrights were taking advantage of having female bodies on stage without really investigating what that meant, I suspect that actresses started asking for better parts.”

Swale imagines Nell gaining in confidence and pushing for the kind of comic roles that she excelled in.

“Once I started writing, I realised it was Nell’s play. I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been a play specifically about her before. Nell had a huge career, she brought a freshness to these roles which James Dryden wrote for her and I felt strongly why do we have these brilliant hugely successful women in their day that we know nothing about because they’ve been squashed out of history?”

She also liked Nell’s salty humour and self-reliance, and says it’s apt that after transferring from The Globe, Gemma Arterton should have inherited the role from Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

“Gemma has spoken publicly about it being important for working class women to be represented on stage and you could see Nell is a follow on from her Made In Dagenham part. She went from a pauper to a princess, not because she was particularly beautiful but she was a wit, clever and funny and gave Charles a run for his money without being deferential.

She was the only one of his mistresses who didn’t get a title, she didn’t want to be a lady or at the top of the court, she just wanted to be herself and I think genuinely shared something quite real with Charles.”

She adds: “She had a great sense of humour, a lot of historical women the majority of the time they are bloody miserable but she gave me a chance to write comedy and I tried to capture her spirit.”

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