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The Herbal Bed

Peter Whelan
Clwyd Theatr Cymru
Emlyn Williams Theater, Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold

Martin Richardson as Rafe Smith, Amanda Ryan as Susanna Hall Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Brendan Charleson as Dr John Hall Credit: Catherine Asmore
Gwyn Vaughan Jones as Bishop Parry of Worcester, Fliss Pace as Elizabeth Hall Credit: Catherine Ashmore

The place of women in Jacobean society, religious discord, the shadowland between truth and lies and the beauty of a fragrant garden. All these themes gradually unfurl in Emma Lucia’s outstanding production of The Herbal Bed in Clwyd Theatr Cymru.

The first of many treats is experienced on entry to The Emlyn Williams Theatre when you experience the stunning set design of Mark Bailey. The seventeenth century walled garden of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Dr John Hall has been beautifully imagined and presented, complete with birdsong.

However, it is the events within this garden, inspired by the real-life court case involving Susanna Hall, Shakespeare’s daughter, which the play considers. Originally written by Peter Whelan for the RSC in 1996 and first performed in The Other Place, the themes The Herbal Bed examines are timeless.

Amanda Ryan’s performance of Susanna Hall is nothing less than riveting. Married to Dr John and daughter of Shakespeare, she appears to have all that she could wish for. However, the picture that emerges is of a more modern woman who longs to practice medicine like her husband and wished to enjoy more freedom in her personal life.

One of the freedoms she wishes to enjoy is the pursuit of her love for family friend Rafe Smith, a situation that is worsened by the religious fervour of the growing Puritan movement in Stratford. In fact, it is a small disagreement early in the play between Dr Hall and churchman Barnabus Goche that sows the seed for a gripping finale.

The plot revolves essentially around Jack Lane, a member of the local gentry brilliantly played by Alex Parry, who has a fondness for drink, a loose tongue and a grudge against the Halls that is tainted by religious rivalry. After his dismissal from apprenticeship to Dr Hall, Lane seizes the opportunity to get revenge when he sniffs a scandal involving Susanna and Rafe.

From here, events spiral out of control as Lane slanders Susanna in a local tavern whilst drunk, claiming she had been adulterous and had the ‘running of the raynes’, or gonorrhoea.

The true power of the narrative is that the accusations are not totally unfounded and it is the differing reaction of those caught up in the maelstrom that drives the production. Martin Richardson brilliantly offers us a panic-stricken Rafe, while Dr Hall, played with impressive authority by Brendan Charleson, is indignant and determined to fight the slur.

However, he remains quietly suspicious of what may be the truth and this is heightened by Susanna’s calm and meticulous reaction. The decision is taken to sue for slander and this leads to the triumphant climax of this production.

The stage is transformed from a welcoming garden to the darkened and ominous environment of Worcester Cathedral. Llion Williams is chillingly forensic as he portrays Barnabus Goche’s examination of the Halls, fuelled by an unspoken desire for revenge for the earlier disagreement.

This is a seriously gripping piece of theatre as Rafe and Dr Hall panic and bluster in the face of the relentless questions while Susanna stays calm. Elin Phillips, who has until now tenderly portrayed a servant torn by unrequited love for Rafe, transforms into a worthy opponent for Goche to save the Hall family name.

With the sight of a stricken Shakespeare being carried into the garden, we are reminded of the superb Hamlet that has just left Clwyd Theatr Cymru, this production is a worthy and brilliantly performed follow-up.

Reviewer: Dave Jennings