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Review: The Herbal Bed @ Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

While the rest of the English-speaking world is indulging in a veritable jamboree of Shakespeare, English Touring Company have mischievously decided to produce Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed, about the bard’s daughter and her sexual indiscretions. It is the first time that this 1996 Olivier-nominated play, which was based on a documented 17th Century court case, has toured, and James Dacre’s richly aesthetic production brings with it a compelling study of religion, respect, guilt and love.

Emma Lowndes is Susannah Hall (née Shakespeare), the decent, caring wife of the dour Doctor John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis). Frustrated by her relegation in her husband’s eyes in favour of his first love, medicine, she momentarily succumbs to her feelings for Rafe Smith (Philip Correia) in the quaint herb garden – a metaphor you think? – shared by her and her husband. A suspicious, dangerously uninhibited Jack Lane (Matt Whitchurch), having been spurned by her husband, besmirches both her and Rafe’s name in public, and all comes to a head at the ensuing hearing at the Diocesan court of the Bishop of Worcester (Patrick Driver).

Although there is little passion between them, Lowndes and Correia both imbue their performances with a tangible anxiety, torn as they are between their fear of God, their respect for the cuckolded John, and their concern for their own reputations. Lewis’ stoic gruffness in the face of their evident love for each other is thoroughly convincing, and the agonising unspoken truth that subsequently binds them together draws out a classy understatement in all three. Whitchurch is enjoyably brazen and mischievous as the frequently sloshed Jack, and there is good work too from Charlotte Wakefield, as Susannah’s timid maid Hester, and from Michael Mears as the poker-straight Barnabus Goche, the bishop’s scouringly puritanical Vicar-General.

The Herbal Bed is a play steeped in history and dominated by the unseen. James I is on the throne and a puritanical fervour is sweeping the country. Disease and plagues are rife in the English countryside. Shakespeare himself is nearing death just around the corner. All this hangs over John and Susannah’s herb garden like a heavy cloud, lending their actions and transgressions a solemn weight, and their dilemma – whether to perjure themselves before God or suffer the blackening of their name with sin – a momentous significance, much, as director James Dacre observes in his programme notes, like John Proctor’s defiant stance in Miller’s The Crucible.

Much has been made of the play’s pertinence to contemporary socio-politics, with its counterpointing of social propriety and desire, and its elegant positioning of morality and reputation. It’s a pertinent observation, but it seems a superficial one. In The Herbal Bed, morality and propriety are inherently religious, whereas the injunctions and super-injunctions of today are spawned purely by a desire to protect one’s name at all costs. One imagines that fear of the Devil claiming their eternal soul does not feature highly in the concerns of the nameless celebrity currently striving to keep their name out of the tabloids.

But contemporary relevance is not the be all and end all of period plays, and when the period design is as handsome as Jonathan Fensom’s – an intricate, earthy, apothecary-like herb garden that mutates smoothly into a cold, judgmental cathedral – it barely matters at all.

4/5

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