November 01, 1998

Wild Thymes in Warwickshire

Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre


The Herbal Bed
Peter Whelan
Sydney Theatre Company
Optima Playhouse, October 1998.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Very little is known about Susanna Hall, nee Shakespeare, but playwright Peter Whelan has made every skerrick count. It is verifiable that in 1607 the elder daughter of the greatest dead white male in the history of the English language married John Hall, a successful physician with a flair for herbal remedies. It is also recorded that she brought defamation charges against John Lane who had accused her of adultery with one Rafe Smith. Lane also claimed she had “the runinge of the reynes” – a needlessly vivid descriptor for syphilis. The case was heard by Vicar-General Goche and Mrs Hall’s objections were upheld. Records show that Jack Lane later libelled the Vicar of Holy Trinity and was charged with riot and drunkenness.

From these threads Whelan has woven the story of plucky Susanna, torn between duty and admiration for Dr Hall and a bosom-heaving love for Rafe Smith. Herself a dab hand with the herbs, she is given to working late at nights preparing her potions while the doctor is spending long hours in the saddle visiting the agues and ailments of Warwickshire. Now, as you will know – not least because playwrights from Caryl Churchill to Sarah Daniel have reminded us over the past twenty years – in the17th century, particularly, women were not allowed to heal or practice medicine without professional credentials – on pain of death. Or more precisely, on pain of being accused of witchcraft, and then death.

So it is a troublesome old time at Hall’s Croft. What with that no-good Jack Lane trying to put the hard word on Susanna and, when rejected, snitching to Dr Hall that she has not only been mixing heavy remedies on the S1 poisons list, but has, with Rafe the trusted family friend, been making what her papa used to call the beast with two backs. Martyr to the cider he may be, but Lane is not entirely wide of the mark in his accusations, a fact uncomfortably noted by Hester, the young and dutiful house maid. Recognising the imminent scandal, Hall makes the pre-emptive strike against Lane only to find that the proceedings are to be conducted by Vicar-General Groche, a puritan with a line in prurience even Kenneth Starr could learn from.

In Marion Potts touring production for the Sydney Theatre Company, Genevieve Blanchette’s set consists of a high facade in heritage green inscribed with latinate botanical graffiti. A doorway peeps into Dr Hall’s little shop of controlled substances. A white picket fence stretches primly along the front while the stage is strewn with what looks like several dozen barrowloads of bouquet garnis. The effect is of an Elizabethan branch of the Body Shop.

And as you might imagine there are ample opportunities for Andree Greenwell’s music -an abundance of hautboys and psaltery, viols, fifes and timbrels all oozing like muzak while the actors work their way through Peter Whelan’s awful version of sturdy yeoman prose – a stolid mix of denatured blank verse and cloddish puritan formality.

Given the creaky mechanics of the plot, the opportunities for the performers are limited. The Warwickshire dialect is also a challenge. Colin Moody more than meets the task and his Jack Lane, broad and leering, frankly and successfully embraces the melodramatic impulses in the text. Simon Burke, usually a fine performer, is well off the mark as Rafe Smith. Burdened by what looks like a very stringy wig and buckskins that even Daniel Boone would balk at, Burke is listless and unconvincing. Ivar Kants maintains believability as Dr Hall but unfortunately his way of representing the earnestly ponderous puritan temperament is by being ponderously earnest.

As Susanna, the red-blooded heroine, herbal whiz (Stratford- on -Avon calling !), protofeminist, solicitous daughter to an ailing father (aha ! so that’s whose reynes are runinge…) and true hearted lover persecuted by the ecclesiastical thought police, Josephine Byrnes has an unenviable task. She brings a gallant energy and handsome presence to the role but her hokey dialogue, soap opera predicaments, and the fact that her accent travels between Cardiff, Dublin and Prague, suggests that the odds are against her.

Sarah Kants is fresh and likeable as Hester but the part calls for far too much of what you might call long-skirt-and-big-apron acting. Rhys McConnochie’s Bishop Parry is jovial and energy efficient while Anthony Phelan, who responds well to the challenge of unsympathetic characters (remember the policeman in Wolf Lullaby ?) is, as Groche, terrific in a mannered sort of way. Capering like a sex starved coyote, he gnashes his teeth and pulls his moustaches when, finally, Hester would rather perjure herself than dob in Will Shakespeare’s lovely daughter.

It is hard to see what Marion Potts could have done with The Herbal Bed except play it as Mills and Boon with historical references. Peter Whelan’s play is finally too fanciful, over-wrought and sentimental to be anything but a pot boiler with recipes and simples. Working from too little he has imagined too much. And having made his herbal bed, there isn’t much left for the STC but to lie in it.

“Wild Thymes in Warwickshire” The Adelaide Review, No.182, November, 1998, p.37.

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