Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jessica Swale talk Nell Gwynn

Published in The Independent on Sunday on September 13, 2015

British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw may be hot property in Hollywood right now, but she’s about to go back to the very roots of her profession – playing one of the first ever actresses, Nell Gwynn, at Shakespeare’s Globe.

With an award-winning role in costume drama Belle under her belt, the 32-year-old will soon be popping up in the starriest of silver screen projects: alongside Keanu Reeves in legal thriller The Whole Truth, as Will Smith’s wife in whistleblowing movie Concussion, as Matthew McConhaughey’s lover in American Civil War drama The Free State of Jones – and even as a feather duster, Plumette, in the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast.

But Nell Gwynn at the Globe – a new play by Jessica Swale – offers a rather more up-close-and-personal experience. Jostling with the groundlings, she plays the title role of Nell, the 17th century orange-seller turned stage actress turned mistress to King Charles II.

It’s been six years since Mbatha-Raw last trod the boards. But then, she was spoiled by a peach of a part: Ophelia to Jude Law’s Hamlet, in the West End and on Broadway. It was such “an extraordinary adventure” that offers since have seemed underwhelming, she confesses. “I’ve been doing films and TV, but theatre-wise, nothing else had come along that felt like it could top that … except for this!”

Nell Gwynn might be a fascinating character with a cracking life story – but Mbatha-Raw was also rather taken with the woman writing it. Swale, a playwright and director whose Blue Stockings, about the first women to go to British universities, was also a hit for the Globe, has been good friends with Mbatha-Raw for years.

“We met on a production of As You Like It at the Northcott in Exeter [in 2004]; I was assistant director,” says Swale. “We hit it off on the first day, because it was both of our first jobs. And we just had a ball.”

“I was Celia,” chimes in Mbatha-Raw. “I’d left Rada a term early – I’d got an agent and this was one of the very first things I auditioned for. I was like: ‘Shakespeare! Off I go!’”

Forging lasting friendships in this peripatetic industry is rare, but theirs has endured. To the extent that Mbatha-Raw – based in LA these days – is staying at Swale’s flat in south London for the entire run of Nell Gwynn.

A light-hearted backstage romp, with lashings of self-aware humour and sumptuous romance, the play finds in Gwynn’s life story material as juicy as her oranges; it’s directed by Christopher Luscombe, a dab hand at comedy at the Globe who’s sure to squeeze plenty out of the script. But there are notes of sadness in there too – Gwynn is accused of abandoning her roots, which serves to sharpen the pain of bereavement.

A re-examination of Gwynn is “long overdue,” the 33-year-old Swale insists. “She appears as a character in other plays, but for the most part, she’s a silly Cockney wench who has a few tit gags. But she was such a wit in real life. You think, well, she couldn’t have got to where she did by just being buxom!”

Swale first got interested in Gwynn when studying Restoration drama at university in Exeter. Gwynn was one of the first ever actresses on the English stage, and she became a much-loved celebrity, starring in many of the era biggest hits. Illiterate, she would learn each part by repetition.

Her charms soon attracted the attention of King Charles II. Gwynn apparently drove a hard bargain on becoming his mistress; in the play, she barters for an allowance of £600, her own carriage and apartment. Still, it did turn into true love, Swale believes: “He did genuinely say on his deathbed ‘don’t let poor Nelly starve’. They stayed very close all their lives – I don’t think it’s hard to believe it was a genuine love match.”

“As well as celebrating the bawdiness of Nell, we’re finding her vulnerability,” insists Mbatha-Raw. “And it does cost her, this arc of celebrity – materially, emotionally, and in what it means to straddle two different worlds. That’s a fascinating element of complexity that Jess has brought.”

Swale acknowledges that her work tends towards period dramas that focus in on extraordinary women. She even re-wrote Nell Gwynn to include three additional female characters – Gwynn’s mother, the King’s wife Catherine of Braganza, and his most politically ambitious mistress, Lady Castlemain – after realising she only had five female roles to seven male. “That wasn’t acceptable to me as someone who believes in writing about the women in history.”

And yet, Swale insists that this isn’t because she has a “feminist agenda” – it’s about finding great stories. “I couldn’t believe with Blue Stockings that no-one had written about these pioneering women students. I’ve seen countless plays about very, very boring men in history … if Nell Gwynn had been a man you can bet that the story would have been told till the cows come home.”

How historically accurate is her Gwynn then? There are plenty of anecdotes to draw on – not least those of diarist Samuel Pepys – but not much in the way of hard facts. “I never had any interest in making a piece of documentary theatre. I hope what I’ve done is be as truthful to history as is useful, and interesting. From the very start I thought, if you’re going to write something that celebrates this period it’s got to be something Nell would enjoy being in.”

The subject of historical accuracy in the theatre has proved a vexed one of late – Trevor Nunn found himself in dodgy territory when his 22-strong cast for his Wars of the Roses Shakespeare cycle was found to contain no non-white actors. “Historical verisimilitude” was wheeled out as a justification, to awkward winces all round. Still, one of the things we do know for certain about Gwynn is she was a white woman – I feel myself wince again to ask it, but were there any raised-eyebrows at casting Mbatha-Raw, a mixed-race actress?

“No. Definitely not.” Swale is firm in reply. “It never even crossed my mind until people in interviews said ‘oh that’s an interesting choice …’ It’s sort of frustrating that the question comes up, but I think it’s really important to say that it’s not a factor.”

“That’s the wonderful thing about acting – you play a role,” adds Mbatha-Raw. “It’s about humanity, rather than labelling.”

There might seem little overlap between the story of Nell Gwynn and Mbatha-Raw’s other Hollywood projects, but she insists there’s a common thread. “All of these are true stories about pioneering characters in history: Dr Bennet Omalu [in Concussion] was the first pathologist who discovered the link between [American] football, brain injuries and dementia. And the characters in The Free State of Jones are again real pioneers in a segregated south of America. It’s the stories that need to be told – that’s the link for me.”

She pauses, remembers Beauty and the Beast and laughs: “Er, not sure that really needs to be told in the same way!” But she acknowledges that she was ridiculously, childishly excited about being part of it, even if she does play … a feather duster. “Go on, you can say it! Well, I thought if Emma Thompson is playing a teapot I can certainly play a feather duster …”

That transformation will come courtesy of computer animation, but for now, Mbatha-Raw is enjoying being back, bodily, onstage. “It’s so visceral – and there’s the audience! It’s odd doing a movie, and then a year and half later having to go to a premiere and talk about what you did, and get dressed up and have your picture taken. This is so immediate and, I hope, invigorating.”

Where next?