Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Aug 8 – Sep 8, 2018
Playwright: Jessica Swale
Director: Deborah Jones
Cast: Lloyd Allison-Young, Kate Bookallil, Debra Bryan, Steve Corner, Aimee Crighton, Susan Jordan, Simon Lee, Naomi Livingstone, Steven Ljubovic, Peter Mountford, Genevieve Muratore, Rupert Reid, Eleanor Ryan, Shan-Ree Tan, Adam Van den bok, Bishanyia Vincent
Images by Chris Lundie
Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn tells the rags to riches story of its eponymous 17th century English actress, charting her rise from common prostitute to becoming one of the first women to ever take to the professional stage, and eventually finding her way into the courts as King Charles II’s most favoured mistress. It was a short but eventful life, that Swale takes great care to frame as a modern feminist parable, featuring a young woman who uses beauty and brains, to battle against all odds, and make it all the way to the glass ceiling. Fascinating biographical information is transformed into effective drama, placed alongside contemporary observations and commentary about womanhood.
Actor Bishanyia Vincent is marvellous in the title role, spirited and intelligent, for an interpretation that is as inspiring as it is entertaining. There is a lightness to the character that endears, but Vincent takes every opportunity to imbue complexity and depth, offering insights that are emotional, or sometimes political, making Nell Gwynn a tale that is unmistakably relevant to our times. Equally memorable is Lloyd Allison-Young as the king, wonderfully flamboyant in his comical expressions that represent perfectly, our perspectives of the aristocratic classes. Both are deeply charming personalities, who insist on keeping us delighted at every turn. It is a strong cast overall, with each performer proving themselves accomplished and inventive in their individual parts.
Musical aspects of the show are whimsical and amusing; Laura Heuston as musical director and Clare Heuston as music consultant, bring a gratifying effervescence to their interludes. Virginia Ferris delivers lively but simple work as choreographer, in clever accompaniment to direction by Deborah Jones that focuses earnestly, on the craft of acting. Visual elements are raw, slightly too basic, or perhaps too straightforward, in configuration and imagination.
As a woman of the lowest class, Gwynn was able to rise through the ranks, with a serendipitous combination of talent and luck, to reach heights that had allowed her a taste of greener pastures. She was never liberated of course, from that dependence on men and their libido, and ultimately succumbed to syphilis, but there is no denying that she was able to ensure wealth and status for all her subsequent generations. Womanly wiles are still a currency today, but for most of us, how we transact is now chiefly a matter of our own discretion.