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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

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.  

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

Production Information

The Herbal Bed
Royal and Derngate
February 5 , 2016
February 28, 2016
Press night
February 9 , 2016
Peter Whelan
Valgeir Sigurdsson
James Dacre
Jonathan Fensom
Malcolm Rippeth
Becky Smith
Stage manager
Meryl Couper (stage manager, Royal and Derngate), Chris McCullogh (stage manager, tour)
Cast includes
Philip Correia, Patrick Driver, Jonathan Guy Lewis, Emma Lowndes, Michael Mears, Charlotte Wakefield, Matt Whitchurch
English Touring Theatre, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, and Rose Theatre Kingston
Running time
2 hrs 35 mins