Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to get cast as Nell Gwyn in a production of ‘Playhouse Creatures’ at Leicester’s Little Theatre. As well as being a large part in terms of lines and stage time, it was also a big part due to the fact that Nell Gwyn was a real person.
The way I judge someone’s importance is by seeing whether my parents know who they are. When I said I was playing Nell Gwyn, my mum said, “oh, the one with the oranges?” Yes, mum. The one with the oranges. Also the mistress of King Charles II who went on to have two children with him. Also a relatively big player in the theatre world, especially at that time when women were only just being allowed on stage. But yeah, the one with the oranges.
Back in the 1660’s, women had only recently been allowed to act on stage, thanks to a knobhead of a previous king / government who deemed it not acceptable, and one step above prostitution (because acting and prostitution are the same, obviously). Nell and a few other women of the time made waves by joining theatre companies, taking main parts and, to everyone’s surprise, actually being *good* on stage. Nell in particular found a talent for comedy.
Having never played a real person before, I read as much as I could about her and about the time period. I went to the Theatre Royal in London – famed as being the theatre where Nell started out – and went on one of their backstage tours, where they take you right down into the underground tunnel between the dressing room and the stage that these women would have used. We got to stand in the King’s box and it was not hard to imagine Nell on the stage, catching the eye of Charles II as he sat there watching her.
I also did a mini project – much like a school history project – where I got information on various things that would inform what I did – theatre, London, costume, everyday clothes, notable events etc., all from the 1600’s.
In all, it was an incredibly educating experience. When it came to the actual week of the show, I felt more in tune with this character than I had ever felt before (oh, how pretentious and wanky). We were all very aware – and bearing in mind that there were only five of us in the cast, all women – that if it hadn’t been for Nell and her cohorts, we would never be retelling this story on a stage.
It was a fantastic experience.