A heady pot pourri of scents from a physic garden fills the auditorium at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre for possible the sweetest smelling period drama ever staged at the venue.
It’s a revival of Peter Whelan’s Jacobean thriller, The Herbal Bed, and you’ll be in for a big surprise if you read the adverts and groaned, thinking “Shakespeare and ruff collars” must mean iambic pentameter and sonnets.
The Herbal Bed, a riveting co-production from the R&D, English Touring Theatre and Rose Theatre Kingston, is as enthralling as any modern day, edge-of-your-seat, courtroom drama with a zealous, hawk-like, prosecutor more terrifying than any witchfinder general or Spanish inquisitor.
In the opening moments of the first act the Royal stage is dominated by a vast wooden cube but Jonathan Fensom’s clever set then opens out to reveal the 17th century garden of Doctor John Hall and his wife Susanna. It’s bursting with digitalis (foxgloves to you and me), yarrow, daisies and all manner of herbs that impart their fragrances under the hot stage lighting.
It is an apothecary’s larder and, while Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, mixes a whole range of popular infusions and cordials, her talented husband saves the townsfolk with his encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and their medicinal properties (he may not cure you but you’ll smell good on your death bed).
The Halls appear to be the the perfect couple but, by sight alone, we see that Jonathan Guy Lewis, as John, is probably twice the age of Emma Lowndes playing his wife. She respects and admires her sainted husband, who has time for everyone with the pox or a pus-filled sore, but Susanna doesn’t love him. This Puritan shows almost no physical or emotional affection to his wife and the absence is eating away at her.
There’s a man, obviously. The boy next door, so handsome that he looks as though he’s stepped out of one of Shakespeare’s own romances, is Philip Correia’s Rafe Smith, who is burdened with a demented wife and a longing for the frustrated Susanna.
You can see where this is going, particularly when John Hall sacks his lazy, drunken, lewd intern, Jack Lane (Matt Whitchurch) and the cocky lad vows revenge.
Susanna & Rafe are accused of adultery, and more, and, in order to clear their good name, the case must be heard in an ecclesiastical court, under the auspices of the fearsome Barnabus Goche.
Most of the second act is taken up, not by a trial, but a cross-examination and Michael Mears’ menacing Goche is a terrier. He is spiritually an old school, hard-line zealot who is physically intimidating, his tall, lean frame, piercing dark eyes, and Roman nose putting the fear of god into those who come before him. Mears has a plum of a role and makes the most of it.
In front of him are two would-be lovers, consumed with guilt over what might have been, and a husband who believes that he has been cuckolded. All three are desperate to win their case and restore reputations – even if it means committing perjury and lying before God and Goche.
There are no saints and sinners in this absorbing tale. We’re full of admiration for the tireless Hall so we should be condemning the actions of his wife (who is simultaneously trying to nurse her ailing father) yet her behaviour is entirely understandable.
Director James Dacre serves up a well-crafted period piece that’s modern in style, benefiting from being devoid of Shakespearean language and excess but bursting with ripe, bawdy, banter and a story that we can all understand. The tension during the inquisition scene is palpable and beautifully delivered.
A triumph that would have thrilled its author, who died just two years ago.
The Herbal Bed
Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed is a well-crafted period piece that’s modern in style, bursting with ripe, bawdy, banter and a thrilling courtroom finale.