Muddy reviews: Real life scandal of Shakespeare’s daughter
A Shakespearean woman accused of adultery… you’re thinking Desdemona, right?
Actually, in this case it’s the playwright’s daughter Susanna, who was involved in a real life public scandal that is recorded in Worcester Cathedral’s records. The story is brought to the stage in The Herbal Bed, written by Peter Whelan and it’s on at the Theatre Royal Brighton until Saturday.
The title comes from Susanna’s husband’s role as physician and apothecary and much of the action takes place in the household herb garden – a set that opens up dramatically in later scenes to become a clever approximation of Worcester Cathedral for a form of ecclesiastical trial.
From my modern day perspective I enjoyed how the play dwelt on women’s roles at the time. “Women are slandered every day in looks and sneers…” says Susanna, who shows a greater strength and focus under pressure than her fellow-accused. Her accuser, meanwhile is a lecherous drunk who considers himself a good prospect for a physician, yet laughs at the idea that a woman could make up prescriptions.
In fact Susanna often helps her husband in his practice and I learned from the programme that her gravestone in Stratford remarks on her intelligence by describing her as ‘witty above her sex’ – a backhanded compliment that was highly unusual for the times.
However, in the play, though Susanna is allowed some intellectual stimulation through her kind but sexless husband’s trust in her, she admits she has lost her ‘spirit’ since she married, like a kind of olden-times Shirley Valentine.
Rather than running off to Greece, Susanna finds brief solace in a daliance with a neighbour and becomes the subject of slanderous pub gossip from someone who’s not exactly the full Iago but has his own malicious reasons for attacking the family.
Don’t expect appearances from the Bard himself. Whelan’s plays typically take on the lesser-known stories from history with more famous characters as bit parts. Shakespeare’s declining health is a thread in the play however and there’s a neat twist in the final scene which links a point in the scandal back to him.
Don’t expect either Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter; the characters may be wearing doublet and hose but this a modern play set in historical times, even with, some (at times distracting) background music written especially for the play. There is just a nod to Shakespeare’s style in the first half when more serious scenes are intercut with clowning from the character of apprentice Jack Lane.
I thought Susanna’s innocence or guilt, which after all, we can’t confidently know, might be left unclear to the audience but we are allowed to see the truth of the situation unfold. The play instead makes you consider whether honesty is always the best policy. As Susanna says, there are types of love and types of truth…
Whelan was inspired to write The Herbal Bed by a proliferation of public inquiries in the 1990s. The second act concerns a form of trial enforced by the stringent vicar-general who seems on a personal vendetta to prove that the curing of the soul by the likes of himself is more important than curing of the body by Susanna’s husband and his kind.
It’s a strong production, from the English Touring Theatre. Particularly noteworthy is Michael Mears as the vicar-general – the dour deputy to the Bishop who is alternately hilarious and menacing and, with the addition of skullcap, seems to have a face made for the part.
Respect too to the three cast members who had to learn the names and properties of a host of herbs as part of their lines.
The Herbal Bed is set in 1613 and Shakespeare died in 1616 so it left me wondering if any of his final works may have been influenced by a scandal so close to home. It seems not; the Bard laid down quill around that time. Cymbeline – with a woman accused of infidelity at its heart – predated the scandal by four years. Perhaps though, it gave someone in Stratford ideas…
The Herbal Bed is at the Theatre Royal Brighton until this Saturday 26 March as part of a UK tour. Theatre Royal, New Street, Brighton, 0844 871 7650, atgtickets.com