The Herbal Bed – Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton

Director: James Dacre

Writer: Peter Whelan

Reviewer: Claire Going

Love, lies and loyalty are themes which are embodied and explored in this revival of Peter Whelan’s play based on the real-life scandal surrounding Shakespeare’s daughter in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1613, co-produced by Royal &Derngate, Northampton with English Touring Theatre and Rose Theatre, Kingston.

A passionate, yet not overstated, retelling of a tale to honour the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, this production examines the dramatic events that took place during the twilight of his life. Although the character of Shakespeare does not appear on stage at any time, his very being nonetheless permeates the text.

This is a story of a real family drama, realised by Whelan from a close study of ecclesiastical court records and originally written in 1996. The records on which he bases his play document the circumstances in which Susanna Hall, daughter of Shakespeare and wife of the eminent Dr John Hall, was publicly accused of adultery with a family friend, Rafe Smith.The play opens with a visit to the Halls by the Bishop of Worcester and the pious and imposing Vicar General, who immediately sets Church against medicine in a discussion about whether disease is God’s punishment for sin. The theme of healing and the Church underscores the text, as Susanna and Rafe struggle to resist temptation and look to rationalise their clandestine actions by the justification that they are following the path of love to make themselves feel whole.

Emma Lowndes, as Susanna, sensitively plays the woman who desperately yearns to be touched. Her portrayal has a touch of Austen’s Elinor Dashwood about it – a woman who controls herself on the outside for the sake of loyalty and decorum but inside is burning with a desire to be loved. Jonathan Guy Lewis, as her physician husband, John, really finds his energy in the second half of the play, as the full understanding of what has been going on between his wife and his friend hits home. The inner passion Guy Lewis conveys as Dr Hall is expertly tempered by his realisation of the impact such a scandal would have on his position.

The most striking thing about this play is its sensitivity. Despite many moments of bawdy humour, such as the masterpieces of wit crafted by Whelan and effortlessly delivered by Matt Whitchurch as the morally lacking, vulgar and dangerously lecherous young gentleman, Jack Lane, James Dacre’s production is an intelligent and compassionate exploration into truth and virtue.

Dacre has paid great attention to detail in this production, and Jonathan Fensom’s design is both unpretentious and beautifully effective. It is impressive that the scenery, props and costuming were produced in the Royal &Derngate workshops and all are of an extremely high standard. The design of the herb garden is remarkably calming; something which is extremely welcome given the high drama at various points in the play, and the imposing setting of the cathedral during the court scene is simple yet inescapably striking.

Perhaps the most heart-warming moment of the play is delivered by Charlotte Wakefield as Hester, Susanna’s servant girl. Torn between her loyalty to her mistress and her devotion to her religion, she looks up at the ceiling of the cathedral during the Vicar General’s inquisition and manages to reconcile both with a touching vision of God.

This production is both pleasing and morally challenging. It won’t blow you away, but it is a sensitive, well-written and beautifully crafted piece of theatre. Full of insight and appeal not only to lovers of history and Shakespeare, The Herbal Bed is also eternally relevant to all those who are interested in human relationships, love, sex and scandal. Hang on a minute, isn’t that all of us?

Runs until 27 February 2016 and on tour | Image: Mark Douet

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