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Play Review: The Herbal Bed

 

Peter Whelan’s acclaimed play about Shakespeare’s daughter is currently being shown at Northamptonshire’s Royal & Derngate to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The Herbal Bed premiered in 1996, earning Whelan much critical praise along with several prestigious awards, including the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Regional Theatre Play. The current showing, directed by James Dacre, is the first revival of Whelan’s work since his death in 2014. The Herbal Bed is based on true events of 1613, whereby Susanna Hall (nee Shakespeare) was publicly accused of adultery with a neighbour. We know this historical fact because Susanna’s trial was ‘documented in the archives of the ecclesiastical court of Worcester Cathedral’¹. Illustrating Jacobean beliefs that the church bears moral and legal superiority over what is right or wrong, the play shows how facts are distorted and relationships blurred in order to uphold social convention.

The play opens with traveling salesman, Rafe Smith arriving at Susanna and Doctor John Hall’s home. It is clear that he is well known and liked by the Hall’s and their servant, Hester. Rafe’s arrival coincides with the end of a visit by Bishop Parry and his puritanical Vicar-General Goche. The Bishop is intrigued by John’s modern attitudes to medicine while Goche is of the belief that illness is the penance of God and to cure ills is to challenge God’s will. This first sign of conflict is appropriately shown in the primary setting for the play, the herb garden at the Hall’s home. The thick, dark wooden walls of the house and its perimeter are an imposing backdrop for the wild herbs growing in the garden; nature seeking to heal and provide a balance between body and mind versus the solid, unwavering and unforgiving theological beliefs of Jacobean times. The Hall’s are shown to be forward thinking and slightly at odds with the wider opinions which defined the period; the university-trained physician with herbalist beliefs and the poet’s daughter with intelligence and ambition beyond most women of the era.

The entrance of Jack Lane, John Hall’s apprentice introduces more conflict. His bold, over-exuberant personality is paradoxically oppressive. In an exchange which only he finds hilarious, Jack taunts Rafe about a childhood meeting between the two. We soon learn that Jack is a drinker and that he is egotistical and unreliable. When Susanna sees him being lewd and physically inappropriate towards Hester, she challenges him. Coming soon after an allegation of lewdness by a patient, John asks Jack to take his leave. As John hurriedly rushes to attend a patient, Jack is slow to leave the women of the house, accusing Susanna of kissing him and being rude and provocative.

While Susanna and Hester are slightly repelled by Jack, both seem to hold affection for Rafe. For Hester, it seems more of a girlish crush but in a private interchange with Rafe, Susanna admits to loving him. We see her caught between wanting to do the right thing, in being faithful to her husband and struggling to suppress her desire for Rafe. Emma Lowndes brings a believable introspection to the role of Susanna. As close as she gets to committing adultery, her character is panicked and remorseful enough to attract the audiences’ sympathy. She greatly respects her husband and fears the repercussions on his career if her dalliance with Rafe is discovered. When Jack threatens to expose the situation, John Hall himself appears to fear more what others will think than what he feels. Susanna, Rafe and John form an unlikely alliance to disprove Jack’s accusations and preserve their own dignities.

The setting dramatically transforms to a depiction of Worcester Cathedral, where the three must defend themselves against the puritanical tirade of Goche. Fantastically doctrinaire, Michael Mears’ Goche presides with an air of superiority and disdain. Twisting truths in the name of keeping up appearances ensures the court proceedings become a merry dance reminiscent of Shakespeare’s comedies. This brilliantly well-acted play manages to paint a portrait of life in 17th century England and comment on the nuances of a family in crisis as they face the ‘contradiction between human desires and the social conventions which seek to repress them’². The Herbal Bed is as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking.

References

Truth and Shakespeare’s Daughter, an article by James Dacre within The Herbal Bed: the Secret Life of Shakespeare’s Daughter, Royal & Derngate, 2016

Written by Keri Wilson


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