Review: Shakespeare’s Daughter Stars In Jacobean Sex Scandal

The Herbal Bed, Rose Theatre Kingston ★★★★☆

By Neil Dowden Last edited 98 months ago

Last Updated 29 April 2016

Review: Shakespeare’s Daughter Stars In Jacobean Sex Scandal The Herbal Bed, Rose Theatre Kingston 4
Emma Lowndes, Philip Correia and Jonathan Guy Lewis in The Herbal Bed. Photo by Mark Douet.

There has been much recent celebration of Shakespeare marking the 400th anniversary of his death but in Peter Whelan’s 1996 play The Herbal Bed it's his daughter Susanna who takes centre stage. Loosely based on a real-life sex scandal, Shakespeare himself remains a tantalisingly off-stage character, but his humanist spirit pervades a drama in which truth is very much a holistic affair.

Set in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1613, the story revolves around the independent-minded Susanna, trapped in a passionless marriage to the decent but austere herbal doctor John Hall with one young daughter, who feels “love’s alchemy” with married haberdasher Rafe Smith. Though their love is unconsummated, Hall’s embittered apprentice Jack Lane publicly accuses them of adultery and the consequent defamation case comes before an ecclesiastical court at Worcester Cathedral.

Whelan’s play is a bit of a slow burner but the show really catches fire after the interval with a thrillingly tense climax in the court hearing that echoes Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with its authoritarian intrusion into people’s private affairs. Like one of Shakespeare’s headstrong heroines, Susanna is an appealingly ardent character who makes mistakes but is very capable in dispensing herbal remedies when her husband is away, giving the play a feminist edge. And her earthy, natural sensuality is set against the wider social background of a growing Puritanism in England which of course later played its part in the events leading to the civil war – not to mention the closing of theatres.

James Dacre’s production is rather static early on but once the accusation has been made it springs to life, with the complicated emotional relations between the main three characters superbly expressed through awkward body language and a gripping showdown in the cross-examination where intimate details are put under scrutiny. Jonathan Fensom’s ingenious design transforms from lushly flowering, wooden-walled herbal garden to the imposing, high-windowed interior of a cathedral courtroom.

Emma Lowndes makes an engaging Susanna, strongly conveying her conflicting emotions as the pressure rises. Philip Correia is the unhappy Smith driven by his impulses and the vocational Hall is sympathetically played by Jonathan Guy Lewis. Matt Whitchurch lends Jack a lewd unpredictability, Charlotte Wakefield is Susanna’s loyal maid and Michael Mears gives a scene-stealing performances as the overbearing Puritan vicar-general with a prurient interest in the sexual activities of his parishioners. You can imagine whose side Shakespeare would be on.

The Herbal Bed is on at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 7 May. Tickets are £8–£28. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.