The Herbal Bed - Theatre ☆☆☆☆4
Showing from - Tuesday, March 8, 2016 through till Saturday, March 12, 2016
Liverpool Playhouse - Liverpool
Johanna Roberts | Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Many is the time I’ve walked through John and Susannah Hall’s house in Stratford on Avon and many the afternoon I’ve sat in their beautiful garden and breathed in the fragrant herbs.
However, they had never been more than a footnote in the history of Shakespeare’s life until last night, when they came alive in English Touring Theatre’s revival of Peter Whelan’s 1996 play. Whelan’s script is well served by some fine and nuanced actingWhile set in Shakespeare’s time, the play resonates with modern issues and raises the same questions we are asking ourselves today regarding privacy, truth and the conflict between personal and public good.
The play is a ‘what if’ scenario, based on a trial for slander, documented at the time, brought by Susannah Hall against Jack Lane, who accused her of adultery with haberdasher Rafe Smith and of having gonorrhoea. If Shakespeare’s plays have taught us anything, it is that human emotions – love, jealousy, envy – are universal, and the events in the play demonstrate this, where Jack organises a smear campaign as revenge against Hall and Susannah, both of whom have rejected him in different ways. Nowadays, he would have tweeted the rumours or sold his story to The Sun and Susannah would have brought an action against him in court. In the 17th century, rumour was started in the pub and the issue was dealt with by the ecclesiastical court.
Whelan’s script is well served by some fine and nuanced acting. Jonathan Guy Lewis is excellent as John Hall, a principled man whose devotion to medicine and to his patients leaves his wife in second place. Emma Lowndes as Susannah and Philip Correia as Rafe skilfully convey the torment and dilemma of people who are both passionate and compassionate.
Meanwhile, Charlotte Wakefield, playing Susannah’s servant, Hester, also communicates her love for Rafe and devotion to Susannah. The religious factions of the time appear in Patrick Driver, who offers an avuncular bishop, and his fiercely puritan Vicar General, played by Michael Mears, who is determined to show the people of Stratford that the law of the church must be upheld. And throughout, Matt Whitchurch gives a fine performance as Jack, a difficult character to portray as the audience must be willing to despise him for his actions yet appreciate the attraction of his devil may care attitude.
However, he is the catalyst that unleashes the maelstrom of emotions and dilemmas that are as relevant today as they were 400 years ago.
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