Set in 1613, and based – it’s claimed – on real events, The Herbal Bed centres around the home and herbal garden of the gullible Dr John Hall, played here by Jonathan Guy Lewis. All seems well in the doctor’s world – until his wife Susanna (Emma Lowndes) is publicly accused of adultery with her neighbour Rafe Smith (Philip Correia). The affair has a double edge to it, for Susanna is the daughter of a rebellious playwright called William Shakespeare… and her husband’s practice of natural medicine challenges the fundamental beliefs of the church. Facts become distorted, rumours are fuelled by lies, and it is decided that a public enquiry by a Church court must play both judge and jury.
First performed in 1996, Peter Whelan’s powerful script allows the actors plenty of opportunity to embellish denial, dishonesty and deceit. As long as nobody states the absolute truth – so long as things remain unsaid – no-one has to believe what is really going on. But once the seeds of doubt are planted, they consume what had at first appeared to be a garden of paradise.
You have to feel compassion for the clumsy, foolish Jack Lane (Matt Whitchurch), who is the only honest character left by the end but who will, you suspect, be left with little of what he wanted and hoped for. The loyal maid Hester Fletcher, played by Charlotte Wakefield, also becomes a victim of her own lies.
And this points, I think, to the parallel truth running through this woven plot. Although the play is written about the troubles of a far-gone time, there are similarities to what feels like the incessant Parliamentary grillings and public hearings of the twenty first century. It seems that nothing much changes when someone is put on trial, in the public eye.
Although a little protracted at times, this story of forbidden love was good-quality drama, a solidly believable piece of performance by the ensemble of actors. The audience were enraptured by a lyrical and poetic piece of theatre.