Familiar Territory

Acclaimed director Christopher Luscumbe will make his return to Chicago Shakespeare Theater in a remount of the hit musical comedy he first helmed on London’s West End, about a cheeky young actress who captures the heart of Restoration London and its very married king.

Nell Gwynn (Scarlett Strallen) and King Charles II (Timothy Edward Kane) embrace the royal spaniel, Oliver Cromwell (Bentley) in Chicago Shakespeare’s North American premiere production of Nell Gwynn, directed by Christopher Luscombe, in the Courtyard Theater, September 20–November 4, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren.


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By Oscar Peterson

From the Autumn 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

You’ve heard the old saying, “You can’t make this stuff up.” Sometimes truth is actually stranger than fiction. It certainly served as great fodder for the hit comedy musical, Nell Gwynn, by playwright Jessica Swale. The hilarious show, on stage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) this fall is at least broadly based in truth telling the story of the beloved mistress of King Charles II and unlikely heroine of Restoration England—the period in which Scottish and Irish monarchies were all restored under the king. Plucked from relative obscurity on the streets of London's West End, where she sold oranges, Nell Gwynn captured hearts throughout the nation when she was discovered by a touring theater troupe and took the stage as one of the first women to do so in a field dominated by men. Her wit and charm would woo a nation (and its king), and help her rise the ranks as Britain’s most prolific actress and the darling of a nation.

​Celebrated director Christopher Luscombe led the original West End production—which snagged four Olivier Award nominations and won for Best New Comedy—and he also helms the new CST remount here this September. Luscombe first became acquainted with the play back in 2015 when he received the script from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. After having read it through (in one sitting), Luscombe knew he had to direct. “It made me laugh out loud,” he told me. “And I simply wanted to know what happened next. It’s a great story.”

What did happen next is the production went on to take London audiences by storm. The Financial Times called it, “a witty, vivacious drama…delightful, joyous…with a serious undertow.” The Guardian, The Telegraph and a host of other outlets would follow suit with rave reviews touting Luscombe’s deft production pace and Swale’s comedic treatment of the work’s overarching feminist message.

​That message was one of the facets of the script that resonated best with Luscombe when he first read it. “I think what appealed to me most was that the play does have a strong feminist message, but wears its politics very lightly,” said Luscombe, “I think that’s because it reflects the spirit of Nell Gwynn, herself. She was a pioneer, one of the very first actresses on the English stage, and yet—first and foremost—she was an entertainer. She enjoyed making people laugh. I hope that an audience will have a wonderful evening watching the play, but while they’re laughing they’re also pondering the whole question of women’s place in society. We’re all so painfully aware that there’s been a dearth of good parts for women in the theater, and this play tackles that head-on by providing a good half dozen cracking female roles and a fabulous starring part for a woman. And it’s great for the boys too. I feel so lucky to be working with material like this. It speaks to a modern audience with absolute immediacy, despite dealing with characters who lived 300 years ago.”

​Yet those characters are actors, and as Luscombe pointed out directing a play about actors (sort of a play within a play) can be an animal of a different sort. He admitted being a bit “wary” of such plays, always having to avoid the trap of creating one big inside joke. But he doesn’t see Nell Gwynn in that light, “Primarily it’s a love story, and it’s also a history play—and on the side, it just happens to be an affectionate evocation of life in the theater,” he explained. “But that’s almost incidental. I think that the characters are so believable and lovable that it’s hard not to be seduced by them.”

Of course, Luscombe’s experience as an actor gives him an advantage in terms of creating the authenticity a play about actors would need. After all, he first launched his career spending seven years acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was during his time there that he first directed The Shakespeare Revue. He’s amassed international acclaim for his vibrant productions of Shakespeare, musicals and new works since.

​As an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Luscombe recently staged a well-lauded repertory pairing of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, as well as a production of Twelfth Night, which went on to be broadcast worldwide via RSC Live. His directing credits also include The Madness of George III and Spamalot on the West End, The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor for Shakespeare’s Globe, and numerous international touring and West End productions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

​So it wasn’t surprising that that original production of Nell Gwynn in London’s West End was in good hands. With the wealth of cheek in Jessical Swales’ tight script and Luscombe’s clever staging, however, the raucous reception the play enjoyed those first performances took even Luscombe by surprised. “Audience reaction to Nell Gwynn at the Globe was pretty explosive,” he said. “And I’ll never forget that first preview. After all the weeks of rehearsal, it was fantastically exciting to know that we had a new play which really struck a chord with people.” The play struck such a chord that it was soon transferred to West End Theatre, this time with a more sophisticated audience. But Luscombe relished the intimacy that the Appolo Theatre gave him and without the open air theater, he admitted, “We could stop worrying about the weather…. I think architecture is very important in the theatre, but if a play has that magic ingredient, then it can play well in almost any space.”

For his Chicago Shakespeare Theater production, Luscombe will return to a thrust stage (one that extends into the auditorium’s seating so that the audience is seated around three sides) like that of the production’s debut, one deeper than that of the Globe in London. He insists that CST’s Courtyard theater will provide the “best of both worlds” in that he already has a marvelous relationship between the actors and the audience, but enhanced with the intimacy the production enjoyed in its transfer to West End.

​Of course, CST’s Courtyard Theatre will also prove to be a bit of a revisit for Luscombe as he returns to the same stage where he directed Henry V back in 2014. The opportunity to partner once again with his Henry V team adds just so much gravy to the experience of Nell Gwynn at CST.

His cast will be a mix of British and local stage veterans. Leading in the title role will be two-time Olivier Award nominee Scarlett Strallen, who starred on the West End in A Chorus Line, Singin’ in the Rain and in the title role of Mary Poppins—a role which she reprised on Broadway.  Portraying King Charles II will be multiple Jeff Award-winner Timothy Edwards Kane in his seventeenth production at Chicago Shakespeare. Kane is notable for his performances as Richard III in Tug of War: Civil Strife (2012), Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream (2012), and Horatio in Hamlet (2006). Starring as Charles Hart, the leading actor in the King’s Company, will be John Tufts—who has appeared in twelve seasons at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He now returns to Chicago Shakespeare after Love’s Labor’s Lost and the two-part Tug of War saga. And Chicago audiences will, no doubt, recognize Larry Yando, who has portrayed the irascible curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, in Goodman Theater’s iconic annual performance of A Christmas Carol. Yando will flesh out the character of Lord Arlington, Charles’ chief minister.

For Luscombe, this collection of players and production team will offer a perfect
mix of old and new. As he explains, “I’m working once again with my wonderful designer and composer from London. But added to the mix are several new, American voices, both in the production team and of course in the cast. That means that I’m going to want to create it afresh. I love re-approaching plays because you benefit from the previous experience but also from the input of a whole load of new people.

​“This company is quite exceptional, and I can’t wait to see what they bring to the play. I hope the spirit and style of the London production will emerge intact, but I’m confident that a lot of the detail will change. We’ll be doing the play in a new era: post-Weinstein, Donald Trump in the White House, #MeToo on everyone’s lips, and in the honeymoon period of a new union between the British Royal Family and an actress. It’s hard not to feel that the play about a pioneering actress who falls in love with a king will have all sorts of new resonances.”

And there is little doubt those resonances, underscored by Luscombe’s deft staging and stalwart cast, will win over eager audiences here much the same way that first production took audiences by storm in its world premiere.

Nell Gwynn will run at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier September 20 through November 4, 2018.