The Herbal Bed

(Brisbane Arts Theatre)


Based on a real-life court case involving William Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna Hall (Lara Flanagan), The Herbal Bed focuses on the way truth can be as deceptive as a lie.

The story is set in 1613, when Susanna Hall brought a case of defamation against Jack Lane (Wayne Lyngkuist). Jack, a student of Susanna’s husband John Hall (Brian Hinselwood), had publicly accused Susanna of adultery. According to the historic court records, Jack alleged Susanna “had been naught(y) with Rafe Smith at John Palmer’s”. The play takes these facts and dramatises the events leading up to and beyond the court case.

In his production notes, author Peter Whelan writes: “It was the pain of the moral dilemma detectable behind this small handful of facts that drew me to write (the play).” Mr Whelan’s layered script captures the complexity of the characters well and, as in real life, there is no one who is completely innocent or guilty.

Nothing is as it seems in the play and the audience is forced to re-examine their understanding of the characters and past events as secret after secret is revealed.

Director Jason Ingram Roth creates a tense drama that plays up the ironies inherent in John Hall’s profession as a doctor. John knows how to deal physically with his patients, although it seems he is unable to connect emotionally with his wife Susanna. “Emotions ran high throughout Jacobean England, as the secular science of caring for the body clashed with the religious art of caring for the soul,” says Roth in his production notes.

William Shakespeare never appears in the play, although his presence is felt throughout. Susanna is obviously her father’s daughter and she persuades her loved ones to protect her reputation with lines such as: “Honesty is not one thing, love is not one thing” and “How can you lie to God when he knows everything?” Her father would have been proud.

Lara Flanagan is excellent in the lead role and manages to successfully portray a Susanna Hall who is complex and intriguing. Especially impressive is her ability to deliver Susanna’s many long speeches both persuasively and with passion.

Steve George puts in an accomplished performance, creating a Rafe Smith who is obviously torn between duty to his unloving wife, passion for Susanna and respect for her husband John. There are many moments in the play where, without speaking, Mr George manages to physically show the toll these conflicting emotions have upon his character.

The highlight of the play is the love scene, full of restrained passion, between Susanna Hall and Rafe Smith. The sexual tension between the two is palpable and thanks to the excellent use of stage-smoke and blue lighting by Steven Tibbits, the scene really does look it like takes place under a bright moonlit night.

Wayne Lyngkuist manages to create a Jack Lane who is by turns annoying, arrogant, charming, funny and, ultimately, tragic. It is an impressive feat as Jack transforms from a cocky young gentleman into a desperate drunk as the play progresses.

Karen Houghton as Hester Fletcher does a good job as a maid put into a difficult position, first by Jack, then by Susanna. Angela Hoskinson is charming as Elizabeth Hall and the two religious figures in the play are well performed by the mononominal Janus as Bishop Parry and Kurt Lerps as Barnabus Goche.

The sets by Una Hollingworth and costumes by Narnie Bowden add an authentic 16th century England feel to the story. And while there was an occasional muffed line on Saturday night, this didn’t detract from enjoyment of the play as a whole.

The Herbal Bed is an intriguing play. Based on a simple depository of court records of four centuries ago, it succeeds in exploring the way telling the truth can be more effective than lying.

— Edmund Tadros
(Performance seen: Fri 13th June 2003)