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.

n Booking: 01789 295623

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before