Nell Gwynn – as brash and bawdy as a play could be – has arrived on Capitol Hill. And what a triumph it is!
The play, which had a successful run in London’s West End and won Britain’s top award for best new comedy in 2016, is now celebrating its DC debut at the Folger Theatre.
Director Robert Richmond describes it as “a Valentine to the theater.” It’s a love letter to Shakespeare and all his followers – including John Dryden, whose poems are better than his plays – and a tale of romance between a king and a commoner that lasted longer than most marriages.
Although Richmond specializes in the classics – his recent adaptation of Macbeth lit up the Folger stage last fall – he is a fan of the work of Jessica Swale, the 36-year-old Nell Gwynn playwright, and considers her one of the most important young writers in theater and film today.
“Jessica has conflated time,” he said, pointing out that although the show compresses more than two decades into 20 scenes, the order is not entirely chronological. The playwright, who has literally plucked a footnote of history off the page, has managed to turn its subject into a full-blown tale of rags-to-riches.
And it’s true. Historically, Nell really did go from hawking oranges to the patrons at the King’s own theater to becoming the star of Restoration comedy and ultimately the mistress of Charles II.
“In a sense, the play is one long flashback, telling the story of how Nell Gwynn – the daughter of a brothel-keeper and an alcoholic who died in debtors’ prison – came to be part of this magic world,” Richmond added. “Nell is the focus of the play. It’s about her wit and charm and honesty, and how those traits eventually won over the most skeptical actors and audiences.”
Nell is brought to life in this production by Alison Luff, who fills the role with high-spirits, energy, a gift for mimicry and a voice so thrilling it may knock your socks off.
The Folger’s Nell Gwynn is not quite the same as the original. Richmond has chosen to begin with a procession. The actors, in costume, make their way down the center aisle, nodding and bowing to members of the audience on either side.
The procession has an immediate effect. Suddenly – even before the lights have been lowered – the audience becomes an integral part of the play. The theater belongs to the King’s Players. And as the prologue begins, hecklers shout and oranges are tossed from the balcony onto the stage.
It’s a wonderful beginning and, according to Richmond, very typical of Restoration Theater in the 1660s. In fact, the theater of that time was full of hecklers. “People in the audience thought they had a right to participate,” he added.
“I also wanted to add the element of surprise,” he explained. “I wanted the audience to be startled, right at the beginning, by the sight of oranges whizzing past, and to jump at the sound of voices coming from behind. It’s a way of literally setting the scene.”
There are many other surprises in Nell Gwynn. They are conveyed by a cast as comic as it is ebullient. Nigel Gore is the anxiety-prone director, Michael Glenn is the hapless playwright, Quinn Franzen is the romantic idol, Christopher Dinolfo is the resident female impersonator and Catherine Flye is both the wardrobe mistress who befriends Nell, and the gin-soaked mother who haunts her. All are masters of comedy, and they reign, like the Merry Monarch himself, over this royal stage.
I spoke to Robert Richmond by phone, reaching him in his office at the University of South Carolina, where he is now in his tenth year as head of the Department of Theatre and Dance.
The teaching job, he reports, fits perfectly with his role as Associate Artist at the Folger, where he directs at least one show each season. Macbeth and Timon of Athens are two of his most recent triumphs.
“One of the most gratifying things about teaching drama,” he remarked, “is the fact that so many of the students have followed me to the Folger.” One former student, Grace Ann Roberts, is now a member of the theater’s administrative staff.
Although Nell Gwynn is the first play he’s directed that is not part of the Shakespeare canon, Richmond has long been interested in the period portrayed, which dates from 1660 to roughly 1689.
“People don’t realize that Restoration Theater marked a big change in the way plays were produced,” he said. “It’s not just that women’s roles could now be played by women. The acting changed and became highly skilled. Scenery could be moved, thanks to the invention of gears and cogs; there were new fashions in clothing and new styles in staging.”
One of the biggest changes was in the involvement of royalty with the stage. According to Richmond, the link was even closer than in Shakespeare’s time. “Elizabeth was a patron of the theater, but Charles II went farther. He founded the King’s Company, subsidized it heavily, and placed Killigrew, who had been his ally in France, in charge.”
Although Richmond is British to the core – he grew up in Hastings, on the English coast (site of the Norman Conquest in 1066), and trained at what is now the Royal Scottish Conservatory in Glasgow – most of his career has been spent in the US. He became a citizen two years ago, having decided it was imperative to vote.
Before joining Folger, he was artistic director of the Acquilla Company in New York City, where he was known for creating highly dramatic modern adaptations of classic plays, many of them – such as Twelfth Night – shown at schools in 72 cities around the US.
Adapting the classics – and recasting them for modern audiences, including children – is very much Richmond’s mission. In that, he considers himself a true sidekick to the Bard.
“If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing for television,” he said. “Or Netflix.”
Today, in addition to his work at the Folger and the University, Richmond is busy establishing his own professional theater company in Columbia, South Carolina. Called Full Circle Productions, the company is currently planning its first play, about Aphra Behn, one of the first women playwrights.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.