The Herbal Bed
THE HERBAL BED by PETER WHELAN,
A co-production with ETT, Royal and Derngate and Rose Theatre Kingston
The late Peter Whelan’s gripping drama The Herbal Bed is at once absorbing and stirring, yet is interwoven with comedy too. The Herbal Bed tells the story of Susanna Hall – Williams Shakespeare’s daughter – who is accused of having contracted gonorrhea from the local haberdasher Rafe Smith. She is portrayed as both deceitful and dishonourable, as well as a transgressive female. Her plight to salvage her name is blighted by her accuser, Jack Lane, as well as the Bishop of Worcester’s representative. The play is based upon real events; however, whereas in reality the case failed to ever make it to court, Whelan blurs fact with fiction as he explores the concept of the slander being carried through to the end.
It is reminiscent of an EastEnders episode that was perhaps taken back five hundred years or so – though one that explores perhaps more sombre subjects, with greater finesse stylistically. Initially the audience was slow to respond to the humour that began the play, however, as soon as the phallic jokes started the audience warmed greatly to the comedic aspect of the play. Matt Whitchurch’s portrayal of Jack Lane captured the essence of his character’s jovial yet capricious nature through his overt gestures and manner of speech. It was notable how, through the use of mud and his depiction of a grovelling vagrant toward the end, Whitchurch seemed to almost physically change.
Indeed, the murmuring noises and sounds that was the backdrop to Jack’s drunken entrance, reflected the feeling of the dulling of the senses. Indeed, throughout the play’s music was scarce but effective, such as lulling the audience into a false sense of belief that the play was a comedy, with its light and cheerful opening music. However, whilst Emma Lowndes was supposed to depict a wooden woman, she remained that way even in the fleeting moments when she was a supposedly a loose and liberal woman again. Her tone of voice felt strained throughout, the conviction of the sexual chemistry between her and the haberdasher was unconvincing. Albeit, perhaps it signified that she had gone past a point of no return, in terms of being stifled.
The set design was minimalistic but effectively deployed by Jonathan Fensom, who immediately drew the audience’s eye to the imposing wooden box on stage, which served to signify the exterior of the home, as well as opening up to depict the garden complete with greenery. The nature of the garden, which had a wall stretching from the background of the stage to the sides, with the rest of the hypothetical garden extending out into the audience’s space, symbolised how Susannah felt trapped. Simultaneously though, the wild yet confined garden afforded her a sequestered place to dream and be herself.
The setting, being fairly naturalistic, was appropriate for the puritan tenors and the religious issues that undercuts the play. This was exemplified in the one scene change – the court of law and the church – which was highly austere, as well as being one of the play’s highpoints. Here, the use of light meant that the mostly black stage, contrasted by the splinters of light falling from a high arching window, heralded him as both ominous and potent, particularly as the light fell onto the table below where he sat centre stage. Indeed, the Chancellor for Worcester, played by Michael Mears, was the most prominent and striking of the actors. With his adroit use of space, tone of voice and volume, his performance transformed his character form that of a minor to major character; especially when, after a pause, he crept up behind the servant as she looked up into the church ceiling, and murmured “that is God.”
Overall the play dished up an edge of your seat performance, situated amidst plausible and titillating history.