THE RESTORATION OF NELL GWYN
by Steve Trafford.
Ensemble Theatre and York Theatre Royal Tour to 29 November 2014.
Runs 1hr 50min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 15 November at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts Maidenhead.
Enjoyably witty chamber drama of fragile female fame.
In 1685 aging actress Nell Gwyn sits, gloriously statuesque as Britannia, singing Henry Purcell’s ode to England ‘Fairest Isle’. But, in her poor London home, with Margery, her Lancashire-born servant and loyal companion, Nell fearfully awaits news of the king’s death. For a quarter-century Charles II has restored merriment to England, among his favourites young orange-seller turned actor Nell. His demise ends her protection.
Women are being kept from the dying king. But Nell specialises in ‘breeches parts’ – male characters acted by women. So off she swaggers in man’s attire. Yet Steve Trafford’s script, while allowing plenty of room for Nell’s energy and determination, has little room for optimism. She inhabits an indeterminate chamber – abstract and black-surrounded in Richard Aylwyn’s design – with a chamber-pot, and talk of plague, sickness, and death. There’s a graphic description of a plague-pustule’s rapid growth, the sighting of a lurid early condom, taken by Nell from her breast and pungent descriptions of neglect and poverty.
Amidst which, there’s the balm of Henry Purcell’s sublime music, travelling from ‘Fairest Isle’ to the mortification of Dido’s lament. The contrast of the sewer and the sublime in Nell’s speech and singing recalls the disparity between the gutter-speech and heavenly music Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus portrays in another musical genius, Mozart, who, a century later, like Purcell, and Nell, died in his mid-thirties.
Trafford’s inventively pointed script shows Nell’s love, fear and fighting spirit, and the contradiction of the stage pioneer who’s also conservative-minded. She loves the king and, putting faith in Lords rather than Commoners (her views on a House of Commons running the country carries a sting), is shocked by Margery’s progressive views.
Elisabeth Mansfield is a striking presence and handles Purcell’s complex vocal lines well without instrumental harmonic guidance. Yet it’s Angela Curran’s Margery, quick to take the temper of the moment and invest it aptly with feeling or irony, who gives shading to Nell’s dreaminess, annoyance or fear. Damian Cruden’s direction might have restrained Margery’s moments of complicity with the audience. Generally, though, he shapes the wit and humanity then lets it speak, brightly, for itself.
Nell: Elizabeth Mansfield.
Margery: Angela Curran.
Director: Damian Cruden.
Designer: Richard Aylwyn.
Lighting: Nao Nagai.
Assistant director: Geoffrey Williams.