The estimable English Touring Theatre normally produce revivals of plays that make for, if nothing else, thought-provoking and enjoyable nights out, and so it proves with a new staging of Peter Whelan’s 1996 drama, The Herbal Bed. Inspired by a real incident in the life of Shakespeare’s daughter in 1613, when she was accused of adultery, James Dacre’s gripping staging of the play deals in big themes of science v religion, the nature of love and of England at a time of change. Even if some of it feels overwritten and possibly in need of judicious cutting, it’s still enthralling stuff.
The action, courtesy of Jonathan Fensom’s splendid multi-faceted set, is based mainly within the Stratford garden of the doctor John Hall, sternly but sympathetically played by Jonathan Guy Lewis. Hall is a man ahead of his time in his use of potions and remedies to combat ills great and small, but he neglects his younger wife Susanna (Emma Lowndes), who, frustrated at the absence of passion in her life, commits a moment of near-indiscretion with the handsome Rafe Smith (Philip Correia). Observed by Hall’s buffoonish and drunken assistant Jack Lane (Matt Whitchurch), she is publicly accused of libel, and a trial of sorts takes place at a nearby cathedral court, overseen by the stern vicar-general Barnabus Goche (Michael Mears).
The first half is impeccably acted and beautifully mounted, but there are moments where even the most sympathetic of viewers might be forgiven for looking at one’s watch and tutting at the longueurs; there are only so many heartfelt cod-Elizabethan passages on the nature of botanic remedy that one can find interesting, and occasionally Whelan’s writing verges on the over-florid, no pun intended. Nonetheless, the acting keeps the story engaging, with Lowndes a convincing mix of virtue and frustration and Whitchurch a mixture of boisterous comic relief and aggression as Lane. The second half is the more engaging, thanks to the tension engendered by the court case, and the splendidly scene-stealing presence of the tall, thin Mears as the serpentine Goche, whose pronounciation of the word ‘theatre’ is a genuinely crowd-pleasing moment.
In the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there is a certain amusing perversity in staging a play revolving around the great man’s family in which he himself never appears, although his presence is felt throughout, especially at the end. Nonetheless, Dacre and ETT more than establish the case for The Herbal Bed to be regarded as one of the more significant works of the latter-day canon, and in its quiet elegance, it has a beguiling atmosphere that genuinely transports you to a time centuries ago for a couple of hours.
Our reviewer saw The Herbal Bed at the Theatre Royal Brighton where it is in residence until 26th March 2016. Part of an extensive UK tour continuing to Salford Quays, Bath, Oxford and Kingston. For further information and to book tickets visit the English Touring Theatre’s website.