The Herbal Bed, a drama imagining the circumstances surrounding a real-life defamation trial involving William Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, begins by presenting the intricacies of a 17th century doctor’s work. The audience is led by Dr John Hall, Susanna’s husband, through the cornucopia of herbs that populate the set, with each plant responsible for ensuring the health of the human body by maintaining balance within it. Countering a popular view of Renaissance medical practices, Hall cautions against the use of blood-letting leeches in large quantities because they drain the body and disrupt its balance. The drama which ensues after this speech is an often startling and thought-provoking account of what happens when society’s balance is disrupted by scandal. The sparsity of detail in the historical record of Susanna’s trial provided playwright Peter Whelan with substantial scope for developing a labyrinthine tale of forbidden desire against a backdrop of post-Reformation puritanical English society. English Touring Theatre’s recent production at The Oxford Playhouse was a confident if occasionally clunky rendition of Whelan’s 1996 work, in its first revival since his death in 2014.
Susanna (Emma Lowndes) is cast in the rather conventional mould of a young wife struggling to maintain her identity in a stifling marriage to a well-meaning but dull older man – Dr John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis). Her attachment to a young haberdasher by the name of Rafe Smith (Philip Correira) provides her with a way to fleetingly escape an unfulfilled marriage. When Jack Lane, a former apprentice of the doctor, accuses the couple of adultery in a drunken fit of pique, Susanna must hold together her tenuous alibi by lying to her husband and by negotiating Smith’s silence despite his urges to confess their guilt.
Lowndes was the star of this production, wringing every drop of emotion and intensity from her exchanges with a series of male characters whose behaviour threatens to ruin her reputation. Whelan gives Susanna the best lines, but Lowndes made the most of this licence in a performance of real variety. Particularly captivating was the almost-sex-scene between her and Correira, in which Susanna insists that she acts “as Susanna, not Mistress Hall.” Her attempts to carve out an identity distinct from her marriage was the most compelling aspect of the production, and resonated a lot more strongly than Whelan’s attempts to reconstruct an English culture constrained by Christian guilt. Philip Correira was a suitably angst-ridden Smith in the aftermath of the accusations, but his character spent much of the second half so consumed by guilt that he was rendered one-dimensional.
Another highlight was Matt Whitchurch’s performance as Jack Lane. One of the less-experienced members of the cast, Whitchurch nevertheless provided much-needed energy to a play which was occasionally derailed by torturously slow pauses and earnest philosophizing. He expertly managed his character’s transition from lovable rogue to leering denouncer and then on to hapless drunkard. His accent was also the pick of a decidedly mixed bunch. This play is set in Stratford and Worcester but judging from the actor’s attempts at regional inflections they could have been anywhere from Norwich to Newquay.
Accents aside, the acting was impressive and was well supported by director James Dacre, who had put together all the right ingredients from a production perspective to showcase his cast’s talents. An ethereal new score from Valgeir Sigurđsson lent an air of mystery and tension without relying on clichéd ‘Greensleeves’ tropes, whilst a moving set created a diverse range of oppressive and enclosed spaces in which the interrogative dialogue could continue with ever-heightening suspense. Ultimately, however, this production didn’t quite marry together all these promising elements into a cohesively satisfying performance. All too often the script descended into long discussions of medical, legal, or religious topics which served only to prove that Whelan had done his research into early 17th century England. Impressive as some of the individual performances were, the fact that the climax of the plot was played for laughs somewhat undermined the explorations of morality, guilt, and desire which had given the audience so much food for thought in earlier scenes. Despite this disappointing conclusion, there was much to admire in the performance, and it was a worthy beginning to the OP’s celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th Anniversary.
For more information about Shakespeare in Oxford 2016, please visit the festival’s website.