English Touring Theatre
The Lowry, Salford
The Herbal Bed: The Secret Life of Shakespeare’s Daughter takes the sparse historical details of a suit for slander and weaves them into an engaging tale. The facts are few: Susanna Hall (Shakespeare’s oldest daughter) was accused, in 1613, of having an affair with a local man, Rafe Smith. The accuser, Jack Lane, was convicted of slander, and excommunicated for his crime.
Playwright Peter Whelan extrapolates a convincing narrative from these scant details; indeed, in this version of events, Lane is telling the truth: Susanna and Rafe have indeed been intimate. But, with help from her reluctant maid, Susanna takes the moral high ground, and Lane is exposed as a spiteful liar.
It’s an interesting play, with strong performances. Michael Mears, as Vicar-General Goche, is a real delight: a perfect incarnation of lugubrious self-righteousness, revelling in the sordid details of the sin he so abhors. Matt Whitchurch, as the hapless Lane, is also very good: a brash, emphatic performance, yes, but also a convincing one, and a welcome relief in what is overall a very measured piece.
If there’s a problem with this production, it’s in the measured tone. There’s no peril here, no real tension. We know the outcome of the case; we know Susanna’s reputation – and her marriage – survive the accusations sent her way. And nobody gets carried away by emotion: apart from one brief moment of passion, Rafe and Susanna behave with sober propriety; Susanna’s husband, John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis) remains calm throughout. The affair, such as it is, doesn’t really seem to matter; no one’s heart is broken; no one really cares.
In the programme, director James Dacre says that Whelan “never imposes an unrealistic crisis for the sake of good drama.” And, of course, no one wants to see an unrealistic crisis in a serious play like this. But what would be wrong with a realistic crisis? It’s a fictionalised account; the possibilities are limitless. And a little excitement would go a long way.
Despite this niggle, I enjoyed The Herbal Bed. It’s intelligently conceived, and well delivered – certainly one to watch.