The National Theatre School of Canada is proud to bring us a play by Jessica Swale that the life of Nell Gwynn, an eminent Restoration actress and mistress to King Charles II. With the Restoration period as its backdrop – which saw theatres reopening after an almost-two-decade-long ban in England and women were allowed to act on stage for the first time – the play delivers humour and a feminist perspective.
Sinj Karan rom Montreal Rampage had the privilege to speak to the director Krista Jackson about this production.
KS (Sinj Karan): What first inspired you about this play?
KJ (Krista Jackson): I was looking at large cast plays for a seven female/ seven male graduating class of political, musical and joyful actors. I was struck by how much love, music and spirit Jessica Swale has imbued into her version of Nell Gwynn. That it is set at a time that examines a new beginning of English theatre and women entering that world for the first time was intriguing to me. It is most definitely Nell’s journey at its heart and it is also a love letter to theatre.
SK: What has been your experience of working with recent graduates, what kind of freedom did you feel you had as a director than working with more seasoned actors?
KJ: This graduating class is not just a group of actors who have come to know each other over their three years at NTS, they have become a real ensemble. What I mean by that is that they work and breathe as a unit. I have worked at the Shaw and Stratford Festivals where the idea of company and ensemble is at the forefront of the work. This feels like that. I can ask them to dive into a scene and they work together to open up the story, relationships and stage pictures. It is exhilarating to build a big show with such a fearless, unified ensemble.
SK: Is there a particular topicality to the subject matter that you are dealing with here? Women finally being allowed to act? How relevant are these questions when talking about barriers that women face in the arts even today?
KJ: There are still more parts for men, there are still more male directors and artistic directors running theatres in Canada. I am often asked, “What is it like to be a ‘female director’?” All that said, I’d like to think it is changing. I have female mentors who support me and it is my honour and privilege to mentor and empower female theatre artists who want to begin taking on leadership roles in Canadian theatre. So, we continue to support and create and hold the space for more women to soar and succeed.
SK: How has your experience been of working in Quebec? Is the theatre out West different from what kind of theatre you see happening on the East coast? Have you found English theatre in Quebec unique in anyway?
KJ: I love Montreal and I love working here. I have seen a few shows from the English Theatre community since I arrived and they have been smart, timely and beautifully conceived. I would like to see more dance and French theatre in the next month. “Out West” covers a lot of space I can’t speak for, but Winnipeg has a diverse theatre community; English, Indigenous and Francophone artists work together. Le Cercle Molière, one of Canada’s oldest theatres – in operation since 1925 – is a vital part of our artistic community. I would love to see more theatres collaborating between Manitoba and Montreal, to enter into a conversation together, speaking all of Canada’s languages on stage.
SK: The cast boasts of actors from all over Canada and different parts of the world. How has this contributed to the richness of the piece? Is it important to have artists from different background, geographical corners?
KJ: Each member of the class is honest and committed to staying true to who they are and where they come from. We are working at creating the space for us to explore, to celebrate who we are and to figure out what point of view we can bring to this play set in 1667 England. Our unanimous goal is clear and joyful storytelling that is rooted in something real. I am humbled by these fourteen human beings and each bring a unique relationship to the show. They are teaching me every day.
SK: What do you expect the audience to take from the play?
KJ: Three hundred and sixty years later, Nell shows us that you can come from nothing and make a lasting mark on history. The real Kings and Queens in our lives are not born into Royal Families. They are born into every neighbourhood and are regal regardless of background, money or class. Politics, poverty and gender are issues we will always need to have conversations about through art and they are front and centre in this piece – but Swale examines them through comedy. And I hope the laughter will be a welcome tonic!
Nell Gwynn runs from February 24 to 29, 2020 at Monument National (1182 St Laurent Blvd, Montreal, Quebec H2X 2S5). PWYC. Details HERE.