Tuesday, 23 October 2018

So good you’ll want to, er, clap

IT’S known if not exactly trumpeted that Shakespeare copped a fatal dose of the clap — or “The Italian Disease, Senor Gonorrhoea”, as The Herbal Bed refers to it, only slightly less indelicately

IT’S known if not exactly trumpeted that Shakespeare copped a fatal dose of the clap — or “The Italian Disease, Senor Gonorrhoea”, as The Herbal Bed refers to it, only slightly less indelicately.

He probably got it from roistering his way around the Elizabethan showbusiness scene in London, but we don’t know and The Herbal Bed doesn’t offer an explanation.

However, this unromantic fact is ever present and barely visible like a high cloud on a bright day in this marvellous, involving play by Peter Whelan.

The subtitle is “The Secret Life of Shakespeare’s Daughter”. She is Susanna Hall and we are in the year of the bard’s death in Stratford.

His daughter is an apothecary and married to a worthy doctor of Physic, John Hall, but her lust is for her next door neighbour, Rafe Smith.

Well, of course, the doctor is called away for a few days to tend to a noblewoman and Susanna finds herself in her garden in the middle of the night in her nightdress mixing up a few potions.

What do you know? Rafe climbs over the wall in true Romeo style and there’s some anguished discussion before they get down to making the beast with two backs — except they don’t quite get to the bit that counts because they’re interrupted.

After that it’s game on — Susannah is slandered in the local tavern, first for having the Italian Disease herself, then for adultery, so the Halls must seek redress through the courts.

That means lying because the two of them had got as far as flesh on flesh and that was damning in those zealous religious days. It goes on to a sword fight, a court case, the compromising of a servant and a satisfying denouement.

The Herbal Bed has few references to Shakespeare but they all mean something and more than anything it reflects the bard’s understanding of what it means to be human. The play is all about being human in an extreme age with religious fervour gathering momentum. Sound familiar?

It was inspired, we understand, by the press’s persecution of Princess Diana, but thrown back 400 years to give it a wider application. Arthur Miller did that with The Crucible, using it as a metaphor for the McCarthy-era purges in the United States.

But Whelan isn’t plagiarising here, even though he borrows a device from that same play to set up an ecclesiastical inquisition.

What happens there is one of the delights of this play, with our expectations being confounded frequently. And, yes, the court case reminds us of the fall of Oscar Wilde, but there are only 12 plots in fiction and life and certainly nothing new under the sun.

This is the English Touring Theatre and I can’t think of a time when they’ve disappointed — certainly not with The Herbal Bed, which is drama at its peak.

These are ordinary, good people thrown into extraordinary situations. How they deal with them through their own disappointments, love for each other and sense of justice and fairness is what makes it so engrossing.

High-level performances from Emma Lowndes as Susanna, Jonathan Guy Lewis as her husband, Phillip Correia as Rafe, Michael Mears as the zealous interrogator, Charlotte Wakefield as the compromised servant and Matt Whitchurch as the lusty, boozy betrayer responsible for the whole mess, make this a must-see.

In the end Susanna finds herself caring for her father and she loves him none the less for being a constant liar. Shakespeare has lasted 400 years and more because he knew what it is to be human. So does this play.

Until Saturday.

Reviewer: Mike Rowbottom

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