If you’ve ever got a spare weekend, gentle reader, you could do no better than to book into a nice hotel in Stratford on Avon, and visit all five of the Shakespeare Properties. My recommendation would be to start off at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, then take in Hall’s Croft and New Place (although that’s currently closed for renovation) – and maybe with a side visit to the Holy Trinity Church. Then after spending Saturday night feeding your face silly and getting rat-arsed, continue the culture pilgrimage on the Sunday with a morning visit to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and then, after a light lunch, drive out to Mary Arden’s House before heading home. We’ve done it a couple of times and it’s enormous fun.
Whilst at Hall’s Croft you can see an exhibition of 17th century medicine and of course Dr Hall’s physic garden where he grew the herbs that were used to create his magic health cures. John Hall was a most respected physician and he married Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna in 1607. Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed takes the true story of how their marriage was threatened by an accusation of adultery, made by a local ne’er-do-well John Lane against Susanna, accusing her of infidelity with the family friend Rafe Smith. The accusation knocks John Hall for six, and although Whelan allows us to see what he imagines did go on between Susanna and Smith, I’m not sure if you’d call it adultery. As history relates, the Halls refute the allegation and take Lane to the Ecclesiastical Court, where the case will be heard by the Bishop’s interrogator, Barnabus Goche. And I shan’t tell you what happens next – even though it is a matter of history and not Mr Whelan’s invention. Suffice to say, Susanna’s made her herbal bed – so she has to lie in it.
It’s a fascinating, beautifully written play, with real, believable characters created out of what might otherwise just remain faceless names in a courtroom record book. It examines reputation, motives and loyalty, questions the nature and definition of infidelity, and above all shows what happens when you defy a greater authority than yourself – be it the local doctor, or the Ecclesiastical Court. It’s a little like You Can’t Fight City Hall – 1610s style. It looks at expectations of social behaviour within class, religious and professional codes; and there is a wonderful moment towards the end of the play when the value of telling the truth – or not – is explored.
This play has been produced by the Royal and Derngate as part of its Made in Northampton season, and co-produced with the Rose Theatre Kingston and English Touring Theatre. Director James Dacre has assembled a committed and exciting cast to create a really first class production that had Mrs Chrisparkle and me gripped all the way through. Jonathan Fensom’s simple but evocative set brings Hall’s Croft to life, and it’s amazing how the sudden appearance of one window can create the illusion of a cathedral. Valgeir Sigurðsson’s haunting music makes subtle appearances to increase the sense of danger and suspense. And there are a couple of other people that definitely merit a credit. It’s not often that I would pick out the role of “fight director” for special mention, but Terry King did something incredibly right in this production as the fight/scuffle scene, albeit brief, was the most believable and immaculately performed I have seen in a very long time. Similarly, Charmian Hoare did a great job as dialect coach as the accents were (IMHO) totally spot on and maintained perfectly throughout the whole evening.
At the heart of the production is a stunning central performance by Jonathan Guy Lewis as Hall. Authoritative but kindly, it’s a sterling portrayal of an honourable man whose decent life is within inches of collapsing, and the most he can do is to face the challenges head on, as best he can. With something of the Trevor Eve about him, he gives it great intensity with a sense of fairness – a very fine performance. Emma Lowndes is also excellent as Susanna, prim and mannerly in public, matter-of-fact and business-like with her husband, an excited little girl with special guests. You can see her eyes darting all about her head as she thinks on her feet how to extricate herself from her mess, and it’s glorious to watch her retain respectability by the skin of her teeth.
Matt Whitchurch makes a splendid young roué out of the role of Jack Lane; just one of the lads in many ways, but seeking revenge when puritanical motives turn against him. Philip Correia, who really enjoyed in The Pitmen Painters a few years ago, gives a good account of the character of Rafe Smith; seemingly puritanical yet not denying his younger, more laddish past; ashamed of his personal fallibility where it comes to earthly matters, but powerless to turn away from temptation. Charlotte Wakefield, brilliant as Laurey in last year’s Oklahoma!, brings depth and insight to the character of Hester the maid, whose evidence will be so vital during the trial. Patrick Driver is the Bishop who’s as honest and as decent a man that you could expect to find in the role.
But if I gave a Chrisparkle Award for Best Supporting Actor (and I don’t) it would very likely go to Michael Mears for his ruthlessly pious portrayal of Barnabus Goche, itching to ask difficult questions, prurient antennae attuned to discovering dirt, sniffing out scandal where it isn’t, and verging on violence with his interrogational tactics. He gave a stand-out performance in A Tale of Two Cities a couple of years ago; he’s an amazingly talented and watchable character actor. In common parlance, in the penultimate scene in the cathedral, he smashed it.
A very exciting and engrossing play that held our grip throughout. Beautifully produced and performed, it will continue to delight audiences for the next few months as it tours Cambridge, Liverpool, Exeter, Brighton, Salford, Bath, Oxford and Kingston. Highly recommended!