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A CurtainUp London Review
.The set pieces of formalised acting are a delight to watch for all their stylised artificiality and the costumes are to die for. We meet the other women in the king's life, his long term mistress, the redoubtable and sexually vulgar Barbara Castelemaine (Sasha Waddell), and his Spanish but childless queen, Catherine of Braganza (Sarah Woodward) in the most monstrous headdress. When the queen in a rage breaks a sculpted bust of Charles II, "My head!" he says, an allusion to the fate of his father at the end of the 1640s when after the Civil War, Charles I had been executed. I hadn't realized that until Charles II poignantly says to Nell, "My father was killed in front of a crowd and I was made to watch," that his son was present. He was just 18 when his father was executed in Whitehall.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw was Jude Law's Ophelia a few years back and she is a delightfully kittenish Nell and makes it easy for us to appreciate how so many men fall for her. She is fun to watch as she surprises the professional actors with her talent and her famous quick wit. When her carriage was caught in the midst of a protesting protestant crowd, she pleaded with them saying that she was the protestant whore. The king's other mistress was a Frenchwoman, the much hated Louise de Keroualle (Sasha Waddell) who tries to influence Charles towards Catholicism and French interests.
When Charles brings Louise to the theatre, Nell mercilessly lampoons her by wear a hat even larger than the Frenchwoman and parodying her on stage. Amanda Lawrence as Nancy, dresser and maid, is a great comic foil in Christopher Luscombe's likeable production. The scene stealer at the opening of the second act is a pretty King Charles spaniel, named here Oliver Cromwell, an unlikely choice for the king's favourite dogs.
There are plenty of topical political references to the lack of arts spending today when King Charles II tells us that playhouses are a valuable national asset which gives the crowd the chance to cheer loudly in agreement. We see the poet and playwright John Dryden (Graham Butler) coming up with play ideas which rip off Shakespeare and David Rintoul as the very haughty aristocrat Lord Arlington is sent up.
The costumes and wigs are absolutely beautiful and the historical setting a strength in this iconic venue. Nell Gwynn gives birth to several of Charles' children and although the Stuart line dies out with the death of Charles' niece Queen Anne, when Prince William ascends to the British throne, he will be the first king since Charles II to be related to the Stuarts, through his mother Lady Diana Spencer and two of Charles' mistresses but sadly Nell isn't one of them.
Charles' dying words are "Don't let poor Nelly starve." History also tells us that this king who left no legitimate children, was converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Hopefully the Globe will be able to revive this production at a future date so that more people may see this lighthearted rags to riches story of a clever and charming woman.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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