Peter Whelan

All Is True


All Is True is a gentle affair and, actually, a perfect Sunday afternoon film. You know what I mean: it’s one to settle down in front of when you’ve eaten too much dinner and you want to engage with something clever but not challenging, fun but not frenetic. It’s a quality piece; how could it not be with its fine pedigree? With Kenneth Branagh starring and directing; with Judi Dench supporting; with Ben Elton providing the script? (Okay, I know Elton has his naysayers, but there’s no denying he’s good at this historical comedy stuff. Blackadder is still up there, I think, and Upstart Crow is pretty decent too.)

It’s the tale of William Shakespeare’s latter years, back in Stratford with his family after living apart from them in London. But now his theatre – the Globe – has gone up in flames, destroyed by a misfired prop cannon; he’s lost his mojo and he needs somewhere quiet to lick his wounds. Returning home also gives him the belated chance to mourn his dead son, Hamnet, who died of the plague while his father was away, and to repair his fractured relationship with his daughters and his wife. But there is scandal in small towns as well as in cities, and Will’s no stranger to it. His own father was a thief, and now his daughter, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), is caught up in a lawsuit, accused of adultery.

Interestingly, this is the second fictional interpretation we’ve seen of this affair (the recorded facts are sparse, but we do know that her accuser was found guilty of slander and excommunicated for his lies) – the first, The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan, was performed at The Lowry in 2016 – you can read our review of it here:

But Elton’s scope is wider than Whelan’s, focusing too on the strange details of Hamnet’s death, and his twin sister Judith (Kathryn Wilder)’s reaction to it, as well as on Shakespeare’s own insecurities as a grammar-school educated merchant’s son, occasionally mocked by the upper-class university graduates he counts as his peers.  There’s a meandering quality to the movie that suits its Stratford setting; the light is gorgeous and the period is beautifully evoked. It’s funny too, and informative. There’s no denying it’s a slight piece of work, a little bit of whimsy to while away the hours, but it’s entertaining and engaging, and, provided you’re not in the mood for something more demanding, perfectly enjoyable.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

The Herbal Bed

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.

4 stars

Susan Singfield