Review

The Herbal Bed

Andy Baker, Emily Burnham, Chris Janes and
Verity Mann in The Herbal Bed

A very interesting choice of play, this, for the secular times we live in. Indeed, the play was only published in 1997, so it's a relatively contemporary choice. The setting is Stratford Upon Avon in the summer of 1613, and the theme is the struggle of the characters in dealing with the increasing hold that the Puritans have over society and the moral contradictions that are sparked by trying to resolve the trials of everyday life with a rigid religious doctrine.

John Hall (Chris Janes) is a physician with decidedly Puritan tendencies and is married to the seemingly upright and pure Susanna Hall (Verity Mann), who also happens to be the daughter of Shakespeare. Most of the play is staged in the herbal garden of their house where the various ingredients of John Hall's cures are nurtured and grown and then pounded with mortar and pestle into the exact quantities required for use in treating his patients. He applies his ethics with an exacting professional approach that seems to fit with the religious exactitude of the times. The play opens with a visit from the Bishop (Paul Morton), who has heard of Hall's remedies, and the first contradiction is raised; is sickness a punishment from God and should we actually be trying to fight disease if it's God's will? Hall responds that God has provided the means to cure sickness, so he is not guilty of any transgression. The Vicar General (Gavin Palmer), accompanying the Bishop, is not so sure. This sets the tone for the moral conundrums to follow.

Also in the garden at the time of the visit are Rafe Smith (Patrick Sunners), a haberdasher ostensibly there on business, Jack Lane (Andy Baker) who is the young gentleman apprentice of the Doctor and Hester Fletcher (Emily Burnham) the Hall's servant. All three are to have significant impact on the Halls' seemingly settled and respectable life.

After the Bishop's visit the play settles into establishing the nature of these characters. A dialogue with John Hall trying to tutor Jack Lane in the ways of medicine shows that Lane, despite being intelligent, is never going to live up to the doctor's exacting standards, especially with his predilection for wine and women. Rafe Smith hated having to bow to the Bishop, he considers himself a moral man, but not of the Puritan kind. Susanna Hall likes to learn about her husband's medical skills and dispenses concoctions when he is away. She's not content just to be the doctor's wife.

We also learn, most crucially, that Rafe is interested in more than selling his wares to the Halls. He is in a loveless marriage, both his children have died and he has become besotted with Susanna. When he declares this to her, her initial reaction is to gently bring him down to earth and to suggest that he sends his assistant in future. The interaction between them suggests that this will not be the end of it.

Fate intervenes when the doctor is called to attend to Lady Haines which will entail him having to stay away for several days. Before he leaves he decides to let Jack Lane go and send him back to his father as he doesn't feel that Jack has a proper calling for medicine and is likely, because of his nature, to cause himself problems. After John has left, Sarah is invited to supper by Rafe at the house of a mutual friend where he will be in attendance with his wife, so there can be no danger of compromising her. When the supper is cancelled however, Rafe calls to apologise for not calling for her and finds her in her nightgown in the garden. The temptation proves too much and their embraces are only cut short by the unexpected return of the servant, Hester, who has been to visit Sarah's father, and is being followed by a drunken and disgruntled Jack.

I have to say first that this choice of play is very well suited to a small theatre group like COPS. The cast size and requirements of the play ensure that the small stage area is never over-crowded and the few set changes required by the action mean that there is little to distract the audience from the performances.

The dynamics of this play are quite subtle and shifting and it's important for the performances of most of the characters to have an even-handedness so as to convey better the contradictions raised by the unfolding of events. The one character allowed some free reign is Jack, who is responsible for most of the play's humour (mainly in the first half), and the only one who pays no heed to the Puritan ethic. He is boldly and confidently played by Andy Baker who seems to have a natural stage presence and provides a colourful counterpoint to the often more serious concerns of the others. Eventually he is the focus of their potential undoing, when he accuses Susanna and Rafe of adultery. Some of his words and business seem to hark back to a Shakespearian theatricality often found in the comedies, and seems intended by the author, so is commendably transferred here to the stage.

Susanna's character, it has to be said, could be viewed as slightly schizophrenic. Another way of putting it is that she has a public nature, the sweet, dutiful and wholesome wife, and a private nature which is somewhat wilder, more independent and strong spirited. Freud might have characterized it as the conscious mind as contrasted with the dreaming or unconscious mind. It's underlined even more by the author by setting the sweet nature by day and the wild nature by night - almost Jekyll and Hyde when the moon comes out. For the most part this duality is subtle and Verity Mann managed this very effectively in the first half of the play by transforming from the dutiful mother hen when her husband is around to a half beckoning, half afraid butterfly whenever Rafe turns up.

After their tryst (and through the second half of the play) her efforts at playing the contented wife are replaced with a determination to save her husband's and her own reputation and this development in character was again very ably portrayed by Mann and was probably her strongest suit.

In contrast to the swaying emotions of his wife is the stoic John Hall, battling on with his doctoral duties only to be confronted with Jack's accusatory letter on his return. Chris Janes plays him straight down the line - an obviously good man who is devoted to his profession - and conveyed particularly well the inner hurt when the doctor realises that there is some truth in the slander. He is also a good counterpoint to Jack's waywardness in the earlier scenes in which the two combined effectively to convey their contrast. Janes also manages to put another idea of the play over well. Whatever you think of Puritanism, if it's applied with moderation and reason then it can provide the basis for a morally strong way of life. We're all too familiar today with the effects of religion applied in extremis.

Rafe Smith is a character who seems to get drawn into whatever life throws at him and then spends the rest of his time regretting it. From bowing to the Bishop, which he swore he wouldn't do, to his unhappy marriage and his liaison with Susanna, he seems like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Whereas Susanna has the intellectual ability to create plausible arguments to persuade herself that her actions are justified, Rafe just seems to be bogged down by his actions and in the end needs saving. Patrick Sunners gives us a nicely weighted and sympathetic portrayal of Rafe which certainly made him seem lost in a changing and more or less hostile world. His strongest scenes were with Susanna in the first half of the play where we really felt the anger, confusion and emotion of his feelings and understand his temptation.

The character of Hester Fletcher is a delight and the girl who has been saved by the Halls from a life of poverty to work as their servant turns out in the end to be their saviour when forced to testify to the Vicar General at Worcester Cathedral. Hester serves as a sort of linking mechanism in the plot and also as a thermometer against which to measure the other characters. She has her own foibles and feelings and these were played excellently almost in the manner of a knowing child by Emily Burnham. She is, with Jack, the other source of humour which is also well delivered and the denouement of the play is dependent on her unexpected bout of totally convincing lies about the events on the night of Susanna and Rafe's tryst. This scene was superbly done and, with her explanation that God told her to lie, sums up the play's tensions between the proscribed ethics of the Puritans and simply following your conscience.

The Bishop turns out to be a fairly timid one and his preference for dealing mainly in the niceties of his job was well conveyed by Paul Morton. He leaves his dirty work to the Vicar General whose inquisition in the cathedral needs to be pretty spine chilling to work to best effect. Gavin Palmer achieved this for the most part, though the intensity dipped just once or twice when it could have been maintained or even increased - but this is only a minor comment given that this key scene was conducted with considerable success and skill.

Special mention must be made of Chloe Lee and Lucinda Mann who alternated in the role of the Hall's young daughter and performed this important part very beautifully.

While one never knows what has gone on in the rehearsal process, it appeared that the direction of the play had been performed with a strong and even hand by Jan Palmer Sayer. I am aware that some of this cast will have worked together before, but they certainly gelled extremely well here and a director cannot wish for much better than a cast all pulling in the same direction. The plot and characterisation were both well realised and the nuances of the text explored without any intrusive diversions. I found the set pleasing too, and must give credit to the transformation of the garden into the interior of the cathedral. The use of the doctor's jars to represent stained glass windows was an inspired touch.

Overall this was a very satisfying and enjoyable production and credit must be given in equal measure to all involved. I am sure that anyone new to COPS who visited these performances will have been inspired to return to see what's on offer in the future.
 

John Webber graduated from Reading University with an honours degree in Film & Drama studies in 1980 and was involved for a number of years with the theatre company of Ware Arts Centre. He now mainly concentrates on writing and is a published poet and travel writer. For more details see www.barenibs.com

Photograph: Steve Beeston