In the Moment: Reflections on ‘Nell Gwynn’ at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre

Beyond cracker-jack, comic allure, the Folger production of Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn is a class act. The Robert Richmond-directed production is built upon Swale’s clever, fresh script. Nell Gwynn is also enlightening beyond its lede addressing the end of the ban on women performing on the English stage with the reign of King Charles II beginning in 1660.

Alison Luff as Nell Gwynn. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
Alison Luff as Nell Gwynn. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Swale’s script is, thankfully, not riddled with a tedious polemic as it depicts those who could have been easy male has-been targets during a time of turmoil. Swale paints these “losers” in an ultimately decent light, as her character Nell Gwynn takes them on and wins them over. Alison Luff as Nell Gwynn is simply a charmer in the role. She is full of wit, style, and her own delightful swagger.

The losers include a fictionalized take on the historic playwright John Dryden (a joyous Michael Glenn). In Swale’s hands, Dryden learns to write with new life and complexity for a woman portraying a woman on stage. Playwright Dryden had a journey to take; he initially had exclaimed, “I can’t write for a woman!”

Larger looms the character Edward Kynaston (a historical figure played by Christopher Dinolfo). Kynaston is Nell Gwynn’s greatest nemesis. Kynaston is a male performer known for portraying women on stage with his use of wigs, padded garments, attitude and the strategic use of a fan.

Over the course of Swale’s script, Kynaston has a huge journey to a modicum of enlightenment, well beyond his initial imagination. He starts out as a foppish person. “No woman can play a woman as well as I can play a woman!” Or this, “They’ve disgraced our trade. Ruined our art. They’ve put a woman on the stage…It’s ridiculous, that’s what it is. It’ll be the death of theatre, I tell you!”

Ah, but there is hope for Kynaston as Swale generously conjures him and has the character Nell Gwynn school him. After scolding Kynaston about using a pause in a line to have it seem two lines, Gwynn goes no further in humiliating him. As the play progresses, Gwynn even treats Kynaston with kindness. He is, after all, a human being. She even suggests that Kynaston portray one final woman’s role on the stage. “Let Kynaston do it!” says Gwynn. Those four magical words send Kynaston beyond the moon. He trots off ready to slay whatever dragons await him as newly empowered by Gwynn.

As I left the Folger after seeing the full Nell Gwynn production, I came to view Nell Gwynn beyond just a fun Restoration comedy. It was theater with a purpose. It is as much about the “everybody” of today, of any gender, caught up with a livelihood that is gone in a flash. How does one deal with being the “loser” (such as Kynaston) when one’s job status is diminished? Or when one’s former work is tossed aside?

Christopher Dinolfo (second from right) as Edward Kynaston, performs with The King's Company in 'Nell Gwynn.' Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
Christopher Dinolfo (second from right) as Edward Kynaston, performs with The King’s Company in ‘Nell Gwynn.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Right now, educated, privileged workers of any gender, ethnicity, or faith not in STEM fields are under assault. They have begun to fear for their work lives. Will they be upended like Kynaston was? But rather than replaced by someone of a different gender, will they be replaced by technology–by a robot, or AI or whatever a small cadre of technologists are developing in a not-so-transparent manner? Will STEM-competent winners of current times be as gracious as Swale’s Nell Gwynn was to the losers of her day?

So hats off to playwright Jessica Swale for her Nell Gwynn. And hats off to the terrific Folger production. Clearly, I think highly of it as a Restoration comedy with a gracious nature. But then I do enjoy some comedy with my enlightenment. Always have. Go see for yourself.

(For more DCMTA coverage of Nell Gwynn, read Sophia Howes’ review here, and Ravelle Brickman’s interview with director Robert Richmond here.)

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Nell Gwynn plays through March 10, 2019, at The Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 544-7077 or go online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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