It seems that, in the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there is no part of his existence that is not to be exhumed for examination – including the life of his daughter. But the revival of this subtle, witty and often surprisingly amusing piece feels less like cashing in and more a welcome chance to revisit a play that, 20 years after it was written, still deserves our attention.
Peter Whelan’s story is based on fact – that Susanna Hall, wife of a prominent local doctor and daughter of William Shakespeare, was publicly accused of adultery with her neighbour, the details of which were recorded in the archives of the ecclesiastical court at Worcester Cathedral. But Whelan uses this fascinating historical titbit as a jumping off point to examine a host of themes and ideas.
The early seventeenth century setting places us at a pivotal time, when religion was in flux, and rationalism and newly emerging scientific disciplines existed in a sometimes uneasy alliance with superstition and tradition. It’s not afraid of raising big questions: if you believe in religion, is it possible to lie to an all-knowing God, who by His nature must know the truth? What is a vocation and what do you owe to it – and, as a woman forbidden to practise medicine, is Susanna morally bound to support the vocation of her husband, even at the cost of her own needs, knowing the extent of his contribution to the greater good? It also touches on issues of class: Susanna’s accuser Jack Lane (a mercurial Matt Whitchurch, all shallow charm and self-indulgence) is not only a threat because of his social standing but, when it comes to a confrontation, he is literally more dangerous: as a gentleman, he is allowed to carry a sword, whereas her fellow-accused, haberdasher Rafe Smith (Philip Correia), is not.
Most compellingly, the play is concerned with matters of privacy, autonomy, and morality – whose business is it if you are unfaithful to your spouse, other than theirs? Who gets to choose and uphold the behavioural standards to which you are expected to adhere to, even in your private life? In an era when the media rather than the church is obsessed with peeking through people’s bedroom curtains – and social media shaming means such indignity is no longer limited to celebrities, it can be inflicted on any of us by a photo snatched at an inopportune moment on a stranger’s mobile phone – these questions seem more relevant than ever.
James Dacre directs with a lightness of touch that stops such weighty ideas from bogging the piece down (although the over-long second half unbalances it slightly, and would be better for a trim). He’s supported by Jonathan Fensom’s stylish set, and a cast without a weak link among them. Emma Lowndes’s Susanna is a suitably complex, conflicted woman, and Jonathan Guy Lewis as her husband is never reduced to simply the stereotype of stuffy, potential cuckold, but is a nuanced and sympathetic character in his own right. Charlotte Wakefield’s Hester, too, could easily be a caricature of comedy servant, but both writing and performance give her an inner life that is about more than simply serving the plot. Michael Mears as the Vicar-General who delights in examining their case is a little more one-note as a character, but Mears’ imbues him with suitable menace.
To some degree, the Shakespearean aspect – while emerging as more significant than it at first appears – is actually almost superfluous: there’s a fascinating story here without his celebrity gloss. And one cannot escape the irony that a play that is, to a great extent, about the restricted autonomy and underestimated intelligence and individuality of a woman is being sold under the name of her absent father.
The Herbal bed is on at the Theatre Royal Brighton until 26th March 2016 and then touring. Click here for tickets.