Two Minutes' Traffic: Folger Theatre's Nell Gwynn

It's been quite a season for Restoration theatre on the Folger stage, starting with the stunning production of the Davenant Macbeth in the fall and now with a full run of Jessica Swale's deft portrait of some of the most famous figures of those stages in Nell Gwynn.  Swale's play keeps a light and contemporary fizziness propelling the tale of the famous Gwynn from oranges to kings and what comes after, but the real star is the ensemble. Anchored by an absolutely terrific performance by Alison Luff, the cast navigates the quick transitions from comedy to tragedy, tension to release, with the ease that speaks to their talent and Robert Richmond's skillful direction.

Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

The primary reason folks who aren't theatre history buffs know the name Nell Gwynn is, of course, that Nell became the mistress of King Charles II (played with tremendous nuance and charm by R.J. Foster). In a reminder of why staging the work of women playwrights is so important, Swale's play shows special care navigating this relationship. It's funny, it's sexy, and it's absolutely aware of the inescapable power imbalance between a common-born actress and a king. It's frank about Nell's history of sex work, and what sex, celebrity, and the public eye can do can do to a career (and to the peculiar family formed in a theatre). Details which have the potential to become thorny instead enrich the portrait Swale creates onstage, and make for an excellent, and highly recommended, night at the theatre.


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