The Herbal Bed
By Peter Whelan
Directed by Marion Potts
Sydney Theatre Company
Wharf Theatre until March 8
Review by Helen Jarvis
Using fragments from the historical record, British playwright Peter Whelan has woven a well-crafted tale of moral dilemma and intrigue surrounding Shakespeares daughter, Susanna.
The archives of the Diocesan Court at Worcester show that in 1612 a charge of defamation was brought by Susanna against one John Lane for claiming that she "had the runinge of the reynes (gonorrhea) and had been naught with Rafe Smith", a haberdasher and hatter of Sheep Street in Stratford.
Susanna was married to John Hall, a medical doctor, whose case book has also survived to provide Whelan with the background in which to set his reconstruction of what could have given rise to such a charge.
The beautiful, calm and radiant Susanna (Angie Milliken) is loved and admired by one and all. The drama revolves around her relationship with the three men — her husband, her accuser and her alleged lover. Each of the characters reveal unexpected strengths and weaknesses as the plot unfolds.
Much of the burden of proof regarding the charges surrounds the testimony of Hester, Susannas servant, admirably played by Justine Clarke. In the background are the ecclesiastical figures — the Bishop of Worcester (Max Phipps) and his vicar general (Jamie Jackson), who plays out the inquisitory session in suitably threatening mien.
Behind the main plot, hinging on morality and adultery, two other themes suffuse the play — science (here medicine) versus the supremacy of gods will and the church; and the supplanting of womens knowledge and skills in healing by the male professional doctor. The struggle between papists and reformists (John Hall is known to have been one of the latter), and the issue of Susannas role in prescribing and dispensing potions provide some broadening of the plot beyond the personal circumstances of its main focus.
The play was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, first performed in Stratford last year, and is here presented as part of the Sydney Theatre Companys 1997 subscription season. Three women bring Whelans script to a sharp and attractive realisation. Marion Potts direction makes for compelling theatre in an enchantingly simple set designed by Genevieve Blanchett, with evocative Elizabethan music by Andree Greenwell.