THE HERBAL BEDEnglish Touring Theatre at the Arts Theatre Cambridge
Peter Whelan's period piece was written 20 years ago for the RSC. It's the very Stratford-on-Avon story of Shakespeare's eldest daughter Susanna, married to respected local physician John Hall.
She is a frustrated, modern woman – unable, despite her skill and knowledge, to practise medicine, she helps as she can with herbal cordials. She is lonely, too, her husband often away for days at a time bringing healing to the well-to-do.
Amongst the speculation, the fact that a cheeky, feckless apprentice to her husband slanders her, is brought to trial in a church court and is excommunicated.
Whelan ingeniously imagines the lives behind the legal record; the tensions of post-Reformation society are credibly explored, the characters are strongly drawn. Emma Lowndes makes Susanna a flawed human being, neither saint nor sinner, but a woman torn between loyalty to her good husband and the excitement of adultery and the new science. Matt Whitchurch is excellent as the laddish accuser, and Michael Mears makes the most of the splendidly named Barnabus Goche, vicar general, somewhere between Obadiah Slope and the Witchfinder General, suavely sliding one sheet of evidence after another from his scrip. Charlotte Wakefield plays the faithful servant, almost a family member, reminiscent of Desdemona's Emilia.
Susanna's poet/playwright father, ailing round the corner in New Place, almost appears at the end, his nameless 'condition' a possible explanation of part of the slander. His little grand-daughter Elizabeth does appear, charmingly. She will inherit New Place in time, and die childless, the last of the Shakespeare line.
The touring set [Jonathan Fensom] is wonderfully realised, a dark timber cube, opening out to reveal the marvellous garden within, and gliding off to reveal the ecclesiastic courtroom, lit from behind by its high window, bereft of its stained glass by the “Purifiers”.