Theatre The Herbal Bed The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon

Four years ago, in The School of Night, Peter Whelan wrote a penetrating, intellectual thriller about Marlowe and the world of Elizabethan espionage. In The Herbal Bed, premiered now in Michael Attenborough's absorbing, beautifully acted production at Stratford, the dramatist turns his attention to the worlds of Jacobean medicine and the church. These, at a time of growing Puritan zeal, provide the context for a fascinating play about lying and its justifications.

The piece weaves a speculative tissue of deeply imagined human relationships around a real-life action for slander. This was brought in 1613 by Susanna Hall, daughter of Shakespeare and wife of the committed and learned physician Doctor John Hall. A loutish young local gent had publicly accused her of having the "runing of the reynes" (ie gonorrhoea) and that she had "been naught" (ie wickedly lecherous) with a Stratford haberdasher, Rafe Smith. We know all this from records of the Consistory Court at Worcester Cathedral.

Whelan fleshes out the situation, showing us, in Teresa Banham's excellent Susanna, an intelligent, complex woman emotionally frustrated by marriage to a doctor who allows her to learn about medicine as a sort of trade- off for the failure of passion. We see that she is smitten by Joseph Fiennes's anguished Rafe, though his besottedness with her comes into painful conflict with his deep respect and liking for Doctor Hall, whose reformist religious views he shares.

Interrupted by a servant just as they are on the brink of full sex in the doctor's herbal garden, Rafe and Susanna face the conscience-chafing task of asserting full, rather than merely technical, innocence.

Whelan's handling of what follows is admirable in the way it relates the story's details to the broader shifts of sympathy in the period. First heard voicing the possibility that medicine may be an illegitimate intervention in sicknesses sent by God as punishments, Stephen Boxer's coldly uncompromising Vicar-General proves, in his lethal court room interrogation, the only character who cannot be deflected from principle.

As Liam Cunningham's grim, troubled Hall superbly shows, the doctor is not deceived by his wife and friend. He pretends to credit their innocence and holds them to affirming it before God because otherwise he would lose the rich clients whose fees allow him to treat the poor. Much heaves under the surface of the clever dialogue as husband and wife manoeuvre to prevent the wracked Rafe from confessing the truth. Also in need of careful handling is David Tennant's winningly disreputable slanderer.

Very much her father's daughter, Susanna is adroit at dissembling and eventually declares to Rafe that there are truths rather than one single truth and that God, seeing them all, cannot be lied to. The play ends just as the ailing Shakespeare is about to be carried into his daughter's house. He would soon be dead, and so, with figures like the Vicar-General on the increase, would the theatre.

Given how much depends on Rafe's feelings for Hall, it's a shame the play does not allow us to see them alone together. A small failing, though, in a rich achievement.

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