If our courts judged us today as the people of England were judged in the 17th century, we’d surely all be in jail or penniless. That, or wearing a white smock and standing in the porch of our local church every Sunday as public penance.
The late Peter Whelan’s phenomenally engrossing The Herbal Bed tells the true story of Susanna Hall, the daughter of a certain Mr William Shakespeare, who, in the bawdy summer of 1613, becomes embroiled in a devastating public accusation of adultery which threatens her entire family.
Susanna is married to herbal physician Dr John Hall, a man devoted so strongly to his calling that he fails to be a proper husband to his wife. That’s proper as in the marriage is unconsummated and Susanna craves the touch of a loving man’s hand. The Halls surely love one another, but it’s more respect Susanna has for John than lust.
Susanna reserves her lustful thoughts for handsome haberdasher Rafe Smith, and it is these lustful thoughts which get her into trouble. Back in Shakespearean times, just having an improper thought or fantasy about somebody to whom you were not betrothed was a sin, and the church’s puritan number determined to weed out and expose such lewdness.
Amanda Ryan is magnificent as the lady-like Susanna, a woman with her head screwed on and probably somebody who could have done great things if the misogynistic attitudes of the day allowed it. She is fiercely intelligent and quick-witted, and Ryan brings this to the fore with elegance and strength. As Susanna’s situation unravels and the lewd accusations made against her and Rafe Smith become public, Susanna is forced into ever more desperate appeals to both the troubled Smith and her maid Hester – not so much cover up the fact she had a “quiet moment” alone with Smith in their garden one balmy evening, but to try and explain it in reasonable terms based upon somewhat disconnected truths.
It’s great for the audience to try and work out, based upon their own personal morals, whether they believe Susanna and Rafe have been untrue to their betrothed or not – they do not kiss, they certainly do not have sex, but they do profess their love for one another, and perhaps fatally, Rafe does get to caress Susanna’s naked bosom before they are disturbed in the moonlight by Hester.
The second half of the play really cranks up the tension as the Halls, Smith and Hester are called before the Bishop of Worcester, and the eye of God himself, to fight a case of slander that Susanna brings against the drunken oaf Jack Lane, the man responsible for the public humiliation. Just when you (and the Halls) think the possibility of ruin and the wrath of God have been avoided, in steps the weaselly Barnabus Goche, a puritan whose principal goal seems to be to expose Susanna’s secret. He’s also there as a baddie for the audience to hate, and Goche’s needling, predatory questioning of the emotionally unstable Rafe and the God-fearing Hester makes for some exciting, tense theatre. Llion Williams may only have one scene in Act 1, but he really steals the show in the play’s climax.
Elin Phillips is delightful as the simple, easily muddled but ultimately loyal and smart Hester, while Alex Parry’s loutish, licentious Jack lane – a character straight out of a 1970s Carry On film – is a joyful, amusing performance, but one tinged with the right amount of danger and vengefulness to make him three-dimensional rather than a caricature.
Brendan Charleson gives a lovely, understated but commanding turn as Dr Hall, surely a man who suspects more than he can allow himself to admit, while Martin Richardson is perfect as the devilishly handsome but vulnerable, almost immature, Rafe.
Performances aside, the most striking and impressive aspect of this production is the set by Mark Bailey: a cottage garden teeming with herbs, plants and a laburnum tree at the height of summer, a season perfectly evoked by Ben Ormerod’s beautiful lighting and Matthew Williams’ delightful sound (the birdsong really places the audience). And who’d have thought Bailey would manage to get Worcester Cathedral on the stage as well?
Director Emma Lucia has put together yet another masterful interpretation of a much-loved play, and her casting is near-perfect, even down to the cute young actresses playing Susanna’s daughter Elizabeth. The Herbal Bed is a play about morals, but these are the morals of the 17th century, and it is fascinating how different they are to today’s way of thinking – and it’s equally as fascinating to ponder on the fairness of then, as well as the extremes of now.
The Herbal Bed at Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold until March 28th.