What exactly is a worthy play? A worthy play – a genre unto itself – depends on a worthy subject. For example, the doomed love of Abélard and Héloïse, the exploitation of the Eskimos, some hideous historical case of racial or religious prejudice, Anne Frank, any lawsuit won or lost by Clarence Darrow, any dramatization of Charles Dickens. It no longer needs to be written in verse or display archaic diction. Importation from Europe is a plus; and the play should feature either British or Central European accents, regardless of locale.
Shakespeare, as we know, bequeathed to his wife his second-best bed. Even that must have been better than The Herbal Bed, which the British playwright Peter Whelan has bestowed on Shakespeare’s elder daughter, Susanna. In 1613, when she was 30 and six years married to the noted Stratford physician John Hall, a rich young roisterer named Jack Lane, whom she had rejected, drunkenly proclaimed that she had been unfaithful with a local haberdasher, Rafe Smith. She brought a charge of defamation against Lane in the diocesan court at Worcester Cathedral, and, Lane not having shown up, she won her case. It was adjudicated by Bishop Parry’s vicar, Goche, a Puritan, as was Doctor Hall, an otherwise enlightened fellow. That’s about all we know.
Out of this, Whelan has constructed a play with a rather limp beginning, a mildly interesting middle, and an indifferent conclusion. It is sensibly written in modern English, but the American accents of most of the cast don’t help the atmosphere. David Jenkins’s scenery – Dr. Hall’s lush garden full of medicinal herbs, and one arch of Worcester Cathedral – is probably the best scant money can buy. But the whole enterprise, with its frequent allusions to Susanna’s father, teasingly about to show up in the end, drowns in worthiness.
“Witty above her sexe,” reads Susanna’s Stratford epigraph, and “Something of Shakespeare was in that.” But the play does not give her much of a chance to exhibit her wit, except as a liar, and even in that, her (fictitious) maid, Hester, eventually surpasses her. Susanna demonstrates medical skills, at least, and the restlessness of a gifted woman in a repressively patriarchal society. Her husband, John Hall, is decent and dull, which Tuck Milligan doesn’t mitigate: Rafe, the would-be lover, is decent and torn, to which Armand Schultz adds wooden; Trent Dawson plays Lane as a standard scapegrace.
Their lack of luster places an undue burden on Laila Robins’s Susanna. Miss Robins, as I have never tired of saying, is one of our few actresses to combine classiness, sexiness, and manifest intelligence with genuine talent, yet she has been shockingly underused. Here, in a fairly colorless part and an unflattering hair color, she pushes a bit hard but is still a pleasure to see and hear. As Hester, Amelia Campbell is slow to get started but rises to a lively climax. Best support comes from the Goche of Simon Jones, a bravura villain in the Basil Rathbone-and-Henry Daniell tradition. His ability to swivel an accusing finger in slow motion and coat a suspicion-laden “Ah!” with malign glee is inspired hokum.
Unfortunately, there is also the Bishop of Herb Foster, who might as well have been cast for his herbal name. His presence in a show is like that in a kitchen of a very pungent cheese, before which all other scents fall silent. Michael Attenborough, who staged the successful Royal Shakespeare Company production, again directs, without much perceptible help or harm.