THE PROTESTANT WHORE RETURNS IN TRIUMPH
Charles II came to the throne (in a fabulous wig, surrounded by fabulous spaniels), with England in a mood to throw aside Puritanism and party. The theatres reopened, and for the first time that Restoration put real women on the stage, wearing as little as they could get away with. Charles had a series of mistresses, most famously the Cheapside orange-seller turned actress, saucy Nell Gwynn. Who deserves deathless memory, if only for the famous occasion when she was mistaken for the King’s (politically necessary) French mistress and barracked in Oxford; leaning out of the coach she cried “Good people, be civil, I am the Protestant whore!”.
The gag is used in Jessica Swale’s play, to good effect if out of context, and Nell’s is certainly a fine story to tell, Christopher Luscombe’s direction of it well suited to the rumbustious familiarity of the Globe. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is perfect in the role, larky and witty and credible as an Eastcheap lass whose straightforward cheek refreshed the King. He, as Swale also reminds us, saw his father beheaded and knew the fragility of monarchy as well as its pomp. Nell must have been a breath of sanity to him. She is spotted while heckling and wooed by Charles Hart, the leading actor at court (Jay Taylor); after singing a splendidly rude song, with gestures, as an audition she is brought on as an actress by him and Killigrew, to the entertaining disgust of Kynaston (a camply gorgeous Greg Haiste in fake boobs and skirts) who regards women’s roles as his private domain. Meanwhile Dryden scribbles nerdily away in the corner (Graham Butler in what I hope is another extreme wig) and various rival mistresses hiss at Nell.
It is rompingly entertaining, ferociously feminist (she thinks men should want a woman “with skin and heart and sense in her head!”) and she was right: she lasted right to the end, bore him sons and had them given titles, and clearly stayed dearer than any of the other women. In the first part the show is full of jokes: rather more knowingly Blackadderish at times than my own taste, but the audiences loved them all. Great cheers meet Charles II’s affirmation that “Playhouses are a valuable national asset!”, and soppy aaaahs greet the inclusion of a proper woofing King Charles Spaniel at his side.
It moves perhaps too swiftly towards the denouement: the King’s illness, Nell banned from his side, his dying words “let not poor Nelly starve!” , her illness and her brief return to her friends in the company (Lord, how sentimental is theatre about itself! and with good reason..). But it’s fun, it’s a squib, a light bright entertainment founded on a bracing truth.
It doesn’t match up to Swale’s last Globe production in this “Herstory” vein: Bluestockings was a five-star triumph, a thing of both tremendous laughs and profound seriousness telling the story of the 1896 struggle of Girton College, Cambridge to have its scholars allowed to graduate. That one ought to play again, in many theatres. This is a Globe lark, fun for a while but less nutritious. And OK, David Sturzaker is an amiable and handsome king, though I must confess to a secret conviction that by law, only Rupert Everett should ever play Charles II.