Pretty Witty Nell, a one-woman play written and performed by Caroline Harding, tells the story of Nell Gwyn. She was a prostitute's daughter who became not only a popular actor but also the mistress of King Charles II. In doing so the play gives us the intrigue of the Royal Court and a sense of the society in which Nell lived - especially the place of women and the dispossessed. For good measure there are also fascinating details of the theatre of the day and an analysis of it's purpose.
Harding portrays Nell as a mixture of a pragmatist and an optimist. Despite his dying words that Nell should not be allowed to starve, King Charles never really gave her grounds to hope for any kind of support and denied her the respectability of a title. Yet although the King's approaching death will remove from her the limited patronage she has enjoyed, Nell continues to have faith as she looks back on her life.
A simple yet effective set creates Nell's dressing room from a few props. Clever lighting allows it to be used also as the stage upon which she performs and, later, gives a sense of foreboding.
Nell moved from selling refreshments in theatres, to performing on their stages. Here she attracted the attentions of the great and good of her day including diarist Pepys and playwrite Dryden who wrote plays for her. The play suggests that it was her personality, not her talent, that was the draw and shows Nell as a populist pandering to, rather than challenging her audience.
Her attitude to the theatre reflects her approach to life - it should be pleasurable and a diversion from daily worries. What, she asks, "is the point of holding a mirror up to nature?" The play is set in a period when theatre was changing, as women had just begun to act onstage and the highly stylised grand gestures used by actors were starting to be replaced by a more natural style. This, it is suggested, was beyond Nell whose range was limited to broad humour rather than serious roles.
Nell's pragmatic approach makes her the ideal mistress. She was not the only mistress of the King and the play uses anecdotes drawn from history to give us good presentations of the rest along with the childless Queen. Nell claims that one mistress reminded the King of his mother and another of his sister. She, using her natural abilities, is the court jester.
Harding does not judge the characters for the choices that circumstances force them to make. The low actor's wage compels Nell to leave the stage and her mentor for a promised income from Lord Balckhurst only to move on when this does not materialise. Harding directs her criticism towards the war-makers whose actions left the people in such desperate conditions .
The rich historical detail in Pretty Witty Nell gives us a larger - than -life character along with a vivid supporting cast and the society in which they lived. Although it presents Nell at a time when she is at her weakest, it is hard not to believe that she will find a way to survive; such is the strength of the character we have met.