Charlotte Wakefield as the much put upon Hester Fletcher gives a measured, understated yet stunning performance and the reason she gives for defending her mistress provided one of the funniest moments in the play.
Peter Whelan’s play is set during the reign of James I, when puritanical principles are beginning to propagate like the herbs in the titular apothecary garden. Susanna, (Emma Lowndes) is publicly slandered, accused of adultery and forced to defend her reputation in the Worcester ecclesiastical court. The records of this true story remain to this day, and provided the seed that inspired this play.
Susanna’s conventional marriage lacks the passion and poetry we assume she has grown up to expect, being the daughter of playwright William Shakespeare. Her husband, Dr Hall, played by the steadfast and supremely affable Jonathon Guy Lewis, is far too attentive to his patients and plants to pay her the attention she desires. It is left to Doctor Hall’s boisterous assistant, an old childhood friend, to remind Susanna of her carefree youth quite unlike her current, dreary existence.
Enter childhood sweetheart and local haberdasher, Rafe Smith (Philip Correia), dealing with problems within his own marriage, and who comes bearing colourful ribbons and equally colourful declarations of love for Susanna. Much like they did in the puritanical age, the bonnets and corsetry stifle both action and emotion, but the relationship between Rafe and Susanna becomes apparent in the late night herb garden, (beautifully designed by Jonathon Fensom) when we finally see the passion that’s been bubbling under the surface.
Fans of Downton Abbey will be pleased to see Emma Lowndes get her teeth into something other than a child snatching downtrodden wife. Once free from her husband and society’s constraints, her character comes alive, whilst also shedding light on attitudes towards women at the time. Matt Whitchurch as Jack Lane, bounds onto the stage to provide some much needed light and bawdy humour, much like a character out of Shakespeare’s comedies. His puppy dog apathetic downfall make his drunken antics and loose tongue instantly forgivable.
Charlotte Wakefield as the much put upon Hester Fletcher gives a measured, understated yet stunning performance and the reason she gives for defending her mistress provided one of the funniest moments in the play. Pious priest, Barnabus Goche, played like a preaching praying mantis by Michael Mears, is the true villain in the final court scene, pushing for the truth even after the case has been concluded. However this does give rise to a lack of tension towards the end of the play, unlike the frenzy of The Crucible, another moral play from a similar era.
The Herbal Bed is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the attitudes and conventions during the time of Shakespeare and highlights the dangers and delights of giving in to desire.