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  • Sun, 13, Aug, 2017 - 5:00:AM

Nell Gwynn: The rags-to-riches story of a woman before her time

Everyone loves a rags-to-riches story. But you might not have heard this one:

Once upon a time there was a girl brought up in a brothel who rose to become the star of the English stage. Along the way she met and fell in love with a king, bore him two sons, secured herself a freehold property in a time when very few women owned property in their own right and lived happily ever after… until she died, probably of syphilis, at the ripe old age of 37.

It’s no fairy tale, but it forms the basis of Auckland Theatre Company’s upcoming play Nell Gwynn.

Based on the life of one of the first ‘actor-esses’ to legally tread the boards at the Theatre Royal in London – yes, that’s right, acting was once illegal for women – the play is a celebration of the strong-willed and talented Nell, who plucked herself from obscurity and made sure she’d never be forgotten.

Playing the role of “pretty, witty” Nell Gwynn is Claire Chitham (Shortland Street, Outrageous Fortune), whom I found sashaying around the rehearsal space in full flight. She’s a force to be reckoned with, is Nell, which is what drew Chitham to the role.

“The play is filled with the spirit of who Nell was and what she did,” Chitham explains. “One of the things that I love about Nell is that she was clearly an opportunist. Rather than being a manipulative and plotting kind of a woman, I think that when a door opened she could see the opportunity and say yes, and was brave enough to step through it at a time when not many people were.”

In a time when women were generally thought of as pretty ornaments, Nell had the added advantage of being smart and funny. “The most common thread in the way that she was described was her wit. Her wit was her currency. I guarantee you that she talked her way into her first acting role and if flirting was a part of that, then I’m all for it.”

Chitham believes that Nell was “one hundred per cent” a feminist, calling to mind a moment in the play when Nell is teased about the likely progression of her relationship with the king and retorts, “You haven’t been watching the right plays, Sir. The lady in this tale isn’t half so predictable.”

“She says no to the king and I think what she actually tries to do is stay independent because she knows that if she enters into the world of becoming a king’s mistress she loses a lot of independence,” Chitham explains. “She has built herself into this independent woman who earns her own wage on stage, and has the adoration of fans and people writing about her, so has some power.”

So what makes her eventually change her mind? “Love. She genuinely falls for the king.”

That old chestnut.

Nell wasn’t the only mistress of the king, however. She had a famous rivalry with the French (and Catholic) Louise de Kérouaille, whom she was once mistaken for as she rode in her coach. When the gathered mob began taunting her she reportedly put her head out the window and said, “Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore."

She also had strong friendships with other powerful women of the time, including ground-breaking writer Aphra Behn. Before that time “women didn’t have voices,” Chitham says. But both Aphra and Nell were “part of this wave of women who had the ability to literally speak their mind.”

So how will women in 2017 relate to Chitham’s Nell?

“I hope that they can plug in through her cheeky spirit and that they can align with the idea that she had the courage to stand up and do these things. It’s also nice that a woman is taking the lead.”

 

Auckland Theatre Company’s Kensington Swan season of Nell Gwynn opens on August 15 and runs until August 30. Tickets can be purchased here.

If you are under 30 and love theatre, you can now get $30 tickets to any Auckland Theatre Company season show. A limited number of 30 under 30 tickets are now on sale for all ATC 2017 shows.

This content was sponsored by Auckland Theatre Company.

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