WHEN Jessica Swale decided to write a play about Nell Gwynn, she wanted to get beyond the cartoon image of English history's most famous orange seller, who went on to become the mistress of King Charles II. The result was a comedy that opened at Shakespeare's Globe before transferring to the West End, where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2016. Revived by English Touring Theatre for its current tour, Swale's play opens in Edinburgh tonight, when audiences should get a chance to see Nell in more depth than is often portrayed.
“Nell Gwynn was a really important actress,” says Swale. “I don't think there's been much about her onstage or screen that presents her as anything other than a tart with a heart. Most people have heard of her without really knowing anything about her, and only really think of her as this orange seller who married the king, but she was so much more than that.
“The play is very much Nell's story. We see her as a young woman who goes on this incredible journey, and who faces a lot of challenges in terms of being taken seriously, both as a woman and as an actress, and who is also involved in this love triangle. Of, course, it's a comedy as well, so there are lots of jokes based around these situations, like when the theatre realises that Nell is a hot ticket, she doesn't want to play Juliet, and the only part they can think of for her to play is Lady Godiva, because that's someone with her tits out.”
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Although Swale emphasises the comic side of her play, there are more serious lines of inquiry at bubbling through the froth.
“I really liked the idea of the Restoration era being part of the play's dynamic as well,” she says, “and that not only was theatre allowed once more, but that for the first time women could perform as well. That seemed like a huge sea-change in terms of what theatre could be, and was a huge political moment in terms of what women could play, when the only roles that were available for women were ones that men had played. I really like writing about the underdog as well, and Nell is very much that.”
Swale never meant to be a writer. Having grown up in Reading, she had her eyes on a career in the theatre from an early age. She studied drama at the University of Exeter before training as a director at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Swale worked as an associate director with Max Stafford-Clark at his Out of Joint company. She was also one of the founders of the Red Handed Theatre Company, with a focus on reviving lost classics by women writers. Swale was nominated for a Best Director award for her production of The Belle's Stratagem, with Red Handed being awarded the Peter Brook Empty Space Award for Best Ensemble in 2012.
It was only when Swale started looking at doing a play about the first women in Britain to be admitted as students at Cambridge University in 1896 that she moved into other areas.
“Playwriting came by accident,” she says. “I wanted to do something on these women, and I looked at other writers doing it, but then ended up doing it myself.”
The result, Blue Stockings, was developed at the National Theatre Studio before premiering at Shakespeare's Globe in 2013.
“Dominic Dromgoole, who was running the Globe at the time, approached me,” says Swale, “and the rest is history.”
Blue Stockings is now one of the most performed plays in Britain, with Swale about to start work on a TV series based on the play.
Since then, Swale has combined writing original plays, including All's Will that Ends Will and Thomas Tallis, with a series of adaptations. The latter has included stage versions of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Thomas Hardy's Far From the Maddening Crowd.
Such a CV might suggest that Swale is solely interested on a certain type of literary classic. Judging by some of her future projects, however, this isn't the case. For film, Swale is writing a rom-com set in the 1960s, while The Mission is a new 1920s-set play for Chichester Festival Theatre. Just aired on BBC Radio 4 is Love (sic), a play set five years in the future about a woman who looks to science to try and find out why her boyfriend appears to have fallen out of love with her.
“It's not the setting that matters,” says Swale. “It's the people. I'm not interested in writing about my life. If I was to write about a middle class white girl living in Brixton, I wouldn't have to do any research, but writing about some of the people I have been is far more interesting.”
The same approach, it seems, applies to those playing her characters. The title role of Nell Gwynn was originally played at the Globe by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, with Gemma Arterton taking over for the show's West End run. For the current tour, Nell will be played by Laura Pitt-Pulford.
“Each one has brought something absolutely different to Nell,” says Swale. “They've all been brilliant, but they've all had their own take on things, so it's been a great joy for me to watch that, and to get to know a character by the different things that different people have brought to it. It's also been great knowing that the play is robust enough to stand that.”
Swale has continued to work with Arterton, and are working together on a film script set in World War Two.
“It's about magic,” Swale says.
Swale is also penning a film version of children's favourite, Horrible Histories
“I think there's a certain snobbery in theatre,” says Swales, ''where for a play to be considered significant it has to be a really dark tragedy, but that's just not what I'm about. I like to make my work accessible to everybody.
With this in mind, a feature film of Nell Gwynn is currently in the pipeline, with Swale writing the script for Working Title productions.
'”People like watching films to feel good," says Swale, “and not a lot of writers want to do work like that. They want to write these searing tragedies, but I just don't. I like keeping things light.”
Again, Nell's importance as a pioneer and an underdog is important.
“Nell Gwynn was one of the first women to have a voice at a time when that was needed,” says Swale. “Although in one sense she had a voice, on another she was dependent on other people to write the words that she said onstage. In my version she protests quite strongly about the parts she was given. In terms of now, she raises a lot of questions about how women are portrayed.
“Nell is also sexy and clever, but she's not educated. That raises questions about how she uses her sexuality to get ahead, and really complicated questions about women now, and how they choose to pursue a successful career or not. As a working class woman, Nell is someone who wasn't expected to do what she did, but for any young women and girls who come to see the play, it shows that they can get there as well.”
Nell Gwynn, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, today to Saturday.