Review: The Herbal Bed

Antonio Gottardello is satisfied by this play that isn’t really about Shakespeare…

THE HERBAL BED by PETER WHELAN, A co-production with ETT, Royal and Derngate and Rose Theatre Kingston Director James Dacre Writer Peter Whelan Designer Jonathan Fensom Lighting Designer Malcolm Rippeth Sound Designer Becky Smith Composer Valgeir Sigursson Casting Directors Gemma Hancock and Sam Stevenson Staff Director Jesse Jones Dialect Coach Charmian Hoare Production Photographer Mark Douet Cast Rafe Smith Philip Correia Bishop Parry Patrick Driver John Hall Jonathan Guy Lewis Susanna Hall Emma Lowndes Barnabus Goche Michael Mears Hester Fletcher Charlotte Wakefield Jack Lane Matt Whitchurch

It is to be expected, that the usage of the Bard’s name in a production subtitle (‘The Secret life of Shakespeare’s daughter’) will draw attention to it and fill the theatre. Even more so if its debut happens to fall on the 400th anniversary of his death, and the narrative is based on a true account of his daughter’s sexually scandalous life.

The downside to this is the increased expectations that such a connection entails, and the greater likelihood for disappointment. And despite all this, the late Peter Whelan’s two-act drama manages to meet the audience’s highest expectations. As the curtain rises the spectators are transported directly into James I’s Puritan Worcestershire in which the Hall household’s apothecary plays host to an irreconcilable conflict between private desire and public judgement.

Slowly easing the spectators into Susanna Shakespeare-Hall’s microcosm of 17th century England, the play’s paradox is readily exposed: a historical work seen through the lens of our time that deals with the issue of privacy and public standing. Written in 1996, Whelan’s play shows the playwright’s grasp of the cultural development of his time, and a great prescience in hinting at the blurring line between private and public sphere that the rise of the internet would later bring about.

Through a series of coincidences plausible enough for one’s suspension of disbelief to be retained, a series of modern and representative characters are established. The arrogant student, the heart-broken lover, the repressed wife, the fanatical vicar, all appear on the Oxford Playhouse stage, and are all overshadowed by the looming latency of the oft-mentioned Shakespeare who, despite several references, never appears.

As the clash between religious outlooks and mundane attitudes comes to a close, the realisation that the playwright will not be appearing on stage starts to surface. Why expose the Bard’s illness and presence, and then exclude him from the emotional conundrum that the play creates? Indeed, why bring up his name in the subtitle despite his physical absence?

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The audience has been enticed by the conspicuous name, but the virtue of the drama makes one glad to have fallen for such a trick. The lack of a clear answer to the issues raised by The Herbal Bed matches how Shakespeare’s death goes unannounced, even when we know that his death coincides with the play’s setting, and thus leaves the audience to reach its own conclusions about the unknown circumstances surrounding the great Bard’s death.