The Herbal Bed

March 8-12

The Herbal Bed

Liverpool Playhouse
https://www.everymanplayhouse.com/

4*

For those who have only a little Latin, quite a lot of the dialogue may be all Greek, but otherwise, you certainly learn a lot about plants and medicine. Not to mention the idiosyncracies, and the idiocy, of human behaviour and the restrictions of Church and Society.

The play opens with the stage dominated by a massive wooden box, the house’s exterior which then opens on to the eponymous garden, beautifully realised (and the whole thing is enhanced by atmospheric lighting and music); later, it opens out again (or not) into the claustrophobic confines of the ecclesiastical court where Susanna Hall, Shakespeare’s daughter, and wife to the respected physician John Hall, refutes an accusation of adultery with Rafe Smith.

The ending focusses on the imminent arrival of her dying father which seems remiscent of ‘Waiting for Becket’, while many of the scenes look like Dutch paintings brought to life in the way they capture a significant moment. That said, there was the odd plot contrtivance: John Hall simply reads out a condemnatory letter; no tension arising from its arrival and hazarding a guess at its contents. Stranger still, the sudden capitulation of the saintly, sinister Goche in the court scene when you would’ve sworn his earnest bloodhound had been thrown a tasty morsel. In turn, there are some interesting developments to get you going: will the loyal maid prove treacherous; will Jack Lane, with his spiteful accusations, relent and recant?

The cast all bring the play vividly to life, not least with their accents and these complicated characters who are all contradictory, from Hester (Charlotte Wakefield), both flustered and flattered by Jack, adoring and challenging her mistress, to John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis), so caring with his patients, so careless with his wife, demonstrative only when it seems he is danger of losing her. Rafe Smith (Philip Correia) is torn between wanting to be truthful and the need to be practical, and Emma Lowdes brilliantly portrays Susanna herself as a clever, cunning, passionate woman. Rather like one of her father’s heroines in fact..

As for the villain of the piece, at first, it appears to be Jack, played with considerable verve and fervour by Matt Whitchurch as a malicious, drunken wastrel, but my goodness, he loses on points to Barnabus Goche, the point being Michael Mears’ magisterial performance as the unctuous, salacious cleric, menacing and hilarious at one and the same time.

The programme may appear a little misleading in that you could expect something on the lines of ‘The Crucible’. Rather than mass hysteria, however, this is a lot more personal: the problems of one family; dilemmas, dichotomies, they’re all here. But easy enough to make up your mind to come along to this play if what you are after is an extremely interesting night out.

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