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The Herbal Bed review at Royal and Derngate, Northampton – ‘heady stuff’

A scene from The Herbal Bed at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Photo: Mark Douet A scene from The Herbal Bed at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Photo: Mark Douet
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In the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it’s refreshing to see a show that resists the pull of Stratford or London’s South Bank – it’s a co-production between several regional touring companies and theatres – but also steps laterally from the Bard himself: it’s Shakespeare adjacent.

Peter Whelan’s 1996 play was revived only last year by Clwyd Theatr Cymru, after the ex-RSC writer’s death in 2014. Inspired by an allegation on public record of adultery against Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna Hall, it envisions a post-reformation England festering with social tensions – wounds far too poisonous for John Hall and all his herbal medicine.

It’s heady stuff, and sometimes the fervour of the times infects James Dacre’s production, which slips into hand-wringing melodrama. But as the play moves from garden metaphors to church-bound courtroom interrogation, it becomes grippingly clever about messy human nature. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design frames scenes like a 17th century Dutch painting.

Emma Lowndes’ Susanna is frustrated and lonely – neither the saint nor the sinner that an outwardly puritanical, in reality rapacious public gaze demands. She’s a well-rounded character in a play fascinated by double-speak. Matt Whitchurch, as her accuser, slides slimily from wise-cracking scoundrel to far worse, while Michael Mears channels Christopher ‘Witchfinder General’ Lee as churchman Barnabus Goche.

As Dacre’s revival hits its stride after the interval, it mixes full-blooded emotion with high-stakes intellectual debate. And as for Susanna’s dad? Well, he’s there in the background; but, on stage at least, we never forget that it’s her life, her story.  

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Occasionally too-ripe revival which mixes full-blooded emotion with gripping debate