BWW Reviews: THE HERBAL BED, Royal and Derngate

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Northampton's Royal and Derngate opens the first major touring revival of Peter Whelan's THE HERBAL BED. Ecclesiastical records show that in 1613, an accusation of adultery was made against Susanna Hall, wife of a noted local doctor and daughter of William Shakespeare. The play takes the court records and imagines what might actually have happened.

As told here, the story is a domestic drama that threatens the doctor's respectability and practice after his disgruntled former apprentice, Jack Lane, puts it about that Susanna has committed adultery with local haberdasher and family friend Rafe Smith and that she has gonorrhoea. Lane is a young gentleman with an eye for the ladies (and for the bottle) who faces losing his allowance from his father because Dr Hall has dismissed him. But the events leading up the accusation are more complicated and nuanced than that. As the gossip spreads, the doctor decides that the only way to deal with it is to take it to the ecclesiastical courts where they come up against the bishop's vicar general Barnabus Goche and rising tide of Puritanism.

Emma Lowndes' Susanna is an intelligent woman suppressing desperation while Jonathan Guy Lewis's Puritan-leaning doctor is wrestling between his faith and his devotion to medicine. Charlotte Wakefield makes the most of her role as the family's maid, whose testimony will be key to the outcome of the case. But I think I may have nightmares about Michael Mears' Goche - tall, forbidding and frankly a little bit cadaverous, his religious inquisitor is inflexible and unbending.

It is atmospheric, tense and thought provoking. It also looks beautiful - from my seat in the stalls I could smell the lavender and rosemary in the Hall's garden where the domestic action takes place. At the ecclesiastical court there are dark corners and shafts of light and beautiful echoes.

I'm expecting to see a lot of Shakespeare-related productions in this anniversary year - Royal and Derngate have three others planned besides this - and THE HERBAL BED is a smart and clever choice - Shakespeare related, but with the Bard off-stage it's a different look at what life may have been like in his time, but which resonates with today's celebrity culture, public inquiries and the blurring of the line between public and private life. Well worth a visit.

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From This Author Verity Wilde