It is rare to find a contemporary play written in rhyming iambic verse. It is even rarer for said play to be as funny as it is historically informative. "Pretty, Witty, Nell," written and directed by Ryan J-W Smith starring Hannah Attfield, tells the story of a hidden icon of the Restoration Period.
Nell Gwynne was born to a low-income family, her father largely out of the picture and later dying in a debtors' prison. Her mother ran a boarding house, where Nell helped out during her youth. At the onset of puberty, the men in the boarding house began to come onto Nell and she would pass them off to her older sister. After a few years of this, she took advantage of the situation and started having sex for money. Thus, her career as a prostitute began. Acting and sex work were linked for women then, so naturally, Nell also began to take to the stage. Her career grew, and she took on better roles and more clients. Eventually, she became King Charles II's mistress, giving birth to two of his sons. The king granted her sons Earl and Lord status. She took to the stage after giving birth, an extraordinary thing to do at the time. The latter part of her life is full of heartache. Her mother dies, followed by her second son and then the king. King Charles II's deathbed wish was for Nell to be cared for and not left to starve. The new king, James II, respected his brother's wishes and paid off Nell's debts and mortgage and even gave her a pension. Unfortunately, only a few short years later, Nell suffered a series of strokes, leaving her bedridden. She eventually died of apoplexy and left her assets to the poor.
Performing a solo show is no easy feat. Add on top of that a solo show entirely in verse. Hannah Attfield manages to tackle the language head-on and make it her own. She fully embodies all of Nell's bawdiness and joviality. Her comedic delivery and over-the-top physicality make Nell a figure you can't help but like. She also takes on many minor and major characters in the story. Her distinct and comedic characterizations of these varied accents and mannerisms keep the audience invested. Attfield knows how to win over an audience. Her connection to the crowd and use of direct address increases the investment of those invited into this story. It is impossible to come out of the show not liking Nell. She is made such a likable character by both Attfield's representation and Smith's well-rounded writing.
The idea of telling the story of an actress/courtesan is a compelling one, as these women are the unsung heroes of early theatre. The idea is even more compelling by telling the story in the language she would have used onstage or at least the style of the language. The script doesn't shy away from anachronism; in fact, it often leans into it. These moments of historical accuracy, coupled with Attfield's, at times, modern portrayal of the language, help to decode a lot of the heightened text for those in the audience who may not be versed in this style. In addition, wordplay and crude jokes mirror the comedy used in the era and likely much of the comedy Nell utilized onstage. Equal parts enlightening and entertaining, this script is one of a kind.
This show is a must-see if you are a fan of Shakespeare and other verse writers. "A celebration of Nell and women on the stage" this story reminds us of the forgotten women in entertainment history and the impact they have on our present.
"Pretty Witty Nell"
Written and Directed by Ryan J-W Smith
Performed by Hannah Attfield
The 15th United Solo Festival
September 25- November 19, 2023
410 West 42nd (btw 9th and 10th Avenue)
Carmen! is a trans-multimedia artist specializing in playwriting, acting and crochet. Originally from Jacksonville Beach, Florida, they are currently based in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, returning to their Atlantic Oceanic roots. Their play Taking the Plunge has been performed at the Tank and the Chain off-Broadway and in the 2023 Fresh Fruit Festival slated this June. Carmen has also worked in front-of-house and technical positions for prominent theater organizations including New Dramatists, Portland Playhouse, Emursive and Future Proof. Carmen’s mission is to use play to create meaningful representation by and for underrepresented communities. For more information on Carmen! Follow them on socials @carmenacetosociety or check out www.carmenburbridge.info