Peter Welan’s The Herbal Bed has a scented heaven of herbs as a backdrop for the investigation into the private life and times of the most famous man in England’s daughter, Susanna Hall (played by Emma Lowndes).
As the opening scene is gently illuminated with a light representing a sunrise, one becomes entirely engrossed in the pitch perfect original score by Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson – the harmonies and pianissimo draws the audience into the scene as Rafe Smith (Philip Correia), a local haberdasher, gently steps closer to the beautifully designed house of Shakespeare’s daughter and her apothecary husband Doctor John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis).
Rafe meets the sweet servant girl Hester (Charlotte Wakefield) and reveals his religious resistance by refusing to ‘bow and scrape’ to the visiting Bishop (Patrick Driver).
The first act is wonderfully immersive – we get to experience the quotidian duties of running an apothecary, and the herbology training of the assistant to Doctor Hall – the infamous scoundrel Jack Lane (Matt Whitchurch).
We are taken through herb quantities, dosage, usages, diagnoses, but we come to learn Jack’s inappropriate desires overcome his ability to become the doctor he wants to be, and is told bluntly of his unsuitability by John.
Jack’s character is splendidly well acted. It is Jack’s foreboding sexual misconducts that pose troubling questions to the audience – including one scene in which he appears to sexually assault the servant Hester, and her mixed reactions twist and turn an uncomfortable response from the audience.
There are punctuated moments of gorgeous subtle stillness that run throughout the play, Susanna preparing the herbal remedy for her poet father being just one of them – this allows time for thoughts of the real life of the Bard to become an invisible presence and adds another backdrop. Susanna is portrayed as a headstrong woman devoted to her studies and to learning herbology in secret, but it costs her the emotional price of a loving marriage.
The play crescendos into a scene of desire and beauty as Susanna and Rafe come to realise their mutual attraction, Susanna’s ‘Love’s alchemy!’ speech attempts to allay her would-be lover’s religious fears and his wrestling with the moral ambiguities about their flirtation with adultery.
It is the character’s introspection into their own misty-grey moral worlds that make this play so intriguing, and worth seeing. The herbal cures in the apothecary act as a backdrop for the recurring motif of illnesses that plague the characters.
At the start of act two, Susanna, John and Rafe become steadily saturated in the secrets, rumours, potential rumours, black and white lies and uncomfortable truths of Susanna’s late night encounter with her would-be lover Rafe, and the very public retelling of this private story by Jack. All the while religious superstition complicates all the character’s abilities to make any moral judgements. It is both wonderful and excruciating to see John only imply his knowledge of his wife’s affair, and we are left uncertain as to whether he knows.
Half way through act two, the play begins to drag as John, Rafe and Susanna are subjected to the inquisition questioning that takes place inside a cathedral. One can be forgiven for thinking it is more boring precisely because it is probably closer to the truth – with records of the Church to be based on; I suspect this restlessness was not created deliberately in order to recreate the feeling of having to actually sit through a church inquisition. It is during this scene that Hester is brought before the court where she lies to the inquisition to back up Susanna’s version of events, which she justifies to Susanna in private, by saying she was told by god to lie – which was met with much laughter. To contrast what is popularly considered to be the ultimate good (god) with the moral murkiness of lies helps grow play’s harvest of a great deal of food for thought.
The Herbal Bed’s greatest strength is that it piercingly investigates a family at the mercy of the moral ambivalence that is created by everyday acts which are wholly relatable as contemporary issues. Its dry wit, its subtle performances by Emma Lowndes and Jonathan Guy Lewis, its heart-rendering original score, Matt Whitchurch’s fascinating portrayal of caprice, these all work to the play’s benefit.
Its weaknesses come from a dull pitch that is created by the superficial pietization and religious subservience of practically everyone except the drunk Jack, and its celebration of a status-quo that none of the characters want. It also suffers from the one-dimensional aspect to Rafe’s character – we aren’t shown enough about him to really know why Susanna loves him. We don’t get to know that Rafe’s two children died from fever for quite a while through act two – and then he only mentions it in passing. But the play is very watchable, Susanna’s subtle expressions and John’s unsaid implications, and the play’s deeply mysterious moral dilemmas make for a strong herbal remedy for the present day.
The Herbal Bed will be at Brighton’s Theatre Royal from Tuesday 22th – Saturday 26th March 2016.
You can purchase tickets here: http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk/page/3030/The-Herbal-Bed/1149
Words by Marc Kis