REVIEW: The Herbal Bed currently on at Cambridge Arts Theatre

The Herbal Bed at Cambridge Arts Theatre

The Herbal Bed at Cambridge Arts Theatre - Credit: Archant

A small but appreciative audience (there were two curtain calls) was transported back 400 years to Shakespeare’s time at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge last night (Wednesday) by a play not written by the bard, but about his daughter Susanna.

The Herbal Bed, at the theatre until Saturday, was performed by the English Touring Theatre and was a real treat to watch writes Sarah Cliss.

The tight knit ensemble gave a flawless performance even with all the tricky herbal remedies that made up a lot of the dialogue during the first half.

The story, based on true facts, tells the story of how Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna (Emma Lowndes) was accused of being unfaithful to her doctor husband in the summer of 1613 and the action she took to clear her name and protect her husband’s reputation and practice.

Set largely in the walled garden of the Halls’ home in Stratford Upon Avon the story unfolds as Susanna is tempted into almost sleeping with a neighbour Rafe Smith (Philip Correia) while her husband is away treating a patient.

Unfortunately they are stumbled upon by Jack Lane, the doctor’s former apprentice who was dismissed and has a bit of a grudge, and the Halls’ maid Hester.

Hester (Charlotte Wakefield) is willing to standby her mistress and give evidence in her favour after Jack (Matt Whitchurch) ‘slanders’ Susanna to drinkers at the local tavern, proclaiming not only did she cheat her husband but she also has gonorrhoea.

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Susanna was clearly a clever woman, she often made up medicines for her husband’s patients, but she must also have been strong minded and quite independent at a time when women were clearly not encouraged to be like that. Jack makes several references to her being a ‘woman’ and therefore should not be meddling in medicine.

Rafe Smith is a haberdasher. He’s handsome and shows Susanna attention, which she doesn’t always get from her busy husband. This probably explains why she fell for him. It certainly wasn’t for his strength of personality, he is basically spineless and finds it difficult to standby his convictions. He was scared of the consequences of lying before the bishop at an ecclesiastical court called to determine the couple’s innocence.

Although in truth it is not so much about proving their innocence as them being seen to be innocent.

The doctor stands by Susanna, even though it is clear he knows the truth of the matter and the play ends with them reconciled in their garden of herbs with Rafe.

Jonathan Guy Lewis as the good doctor together with Matt Whitchurch’s Jack, who goes from mischievous and slightly lewd to wretched and desperate, were the stand-out performances, but really the whole cast is excellent.

The Herbal Bed is definitely worth a watch not just for the fine acting but also for the glimpse into the world that Shakespeare and his family lived in, a time when the church held so much power. As director Rachel Tackley says in her introduction to the play in the programme many of the themes have relevance today, the cross over between private and public lives. The outing of Susanna was not much different to that of the press exposing some MP’s affair and the fall-out that can have not just on his personal life but also his career.

The Herbal Bed runs until Saturday for tickets visit:

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