Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

herbal head

Highbury Players


SO, did Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna have it off with local haberdasher Rafe Smith in her husband’s herb garden in Stratford?

That’s the question posed by Peter Whelan in the play he wrote 20 years ago for the RSC. The question is based on the historical fact that a wealthy son of the local gentry, Jack Lane, accused Susanna of not only knowing the haberdasher biblically but had caught the “running of the raynes” from him.

The raynes being the kidneys and the phrase a polite description for gonorrhoea. Serious charges in the 17th century, so Susanna, her husband Dr John Hall and Smith brought a case for slander against Lane at the Consistory Court at Worcester in June, 1613.

That is the crux of it but there is a fascination beyond the drama in the snippets of information of medical practice in the 1600s  – death must have been a tempting option for some faced with Dr Hall’s herbal remedies supplemented by doses of lead and a few poisons, which we were told, were used carefully. Anyone for a leech in the groin or a wriggly worm poultice?

We discover some wonderful medical terms and the script produces some very funny lines, although Robert Hicks’ Dr Hall fails to see the humour.

Hicks give us a Hall who is a humourless, dSusanna and Rafeull as ditchwater Puritan. You suspect his idea of fun is to find a four leafed clover. Hicks cleverly gives us a man who obviously suspects the accusations could be true but rather than call his wife a liar in the eyes of God supports her with a fervour that becomes an obsession.

Emma Woodcock’s Susanna is the practical one, helping to make up prescriptions, collecting the herbs and, despite being a woman, administering to the sick when her husband is away.

Mark Fletcher as Rafe and Emma Woodcock as Susanna Hall

Once she would laugh and smile, she might even have flirted, but no more, the Hall household is one of puritanical dreariness.derous, brooding man, miserable as sin in the portrayal by Mark Fletcher. He takes honesty to new levels, and has to have the need for economy of truth explained for when tap dancing around the facts, for example, the difference between carnal knowledge and carnality,something Bill Clinton would understand a few centuries later.

Then there is the Hall’s servant Hester, Ciara O’Sullivan, an unwilling witness, persuaded that it would be in her best interests to be less than certain of what she had seen.

Whether she feared the wrath of God or betraying Susanna more was a close run thing, until she convinced herself that God, apparently perched on the roof of Worcester Cathedral, had told her to lie.  She has a lovely flash of anger towards the end as we discover her own love for Rafe, who seems to get the women flocking around him despite turning miserable into an art form.

Rob Alexander gives us a rather unworldly Bishop Parry, Bishop of Worcester, with a head either in the clouds or buried in the sand, leaving all the hard decisions and Church discipline to his Puritan layman Vicar General, Barnabus Goche, played in po-faced, no nonsense and somewhat sinister style by Cos Calogirou.

So thank the Lord for Jack Hobbis’s Jack Lane, a real Jack the lad. Hobbis was Algernon in the recent Importance of Being Earnest and brings that devil may care attitude to this 17th century rake. At last someone who actually smiles and is up for a laugh, although he is up for a bit more than that, trying to seduce Hester and having tried it on with Susanna. Oh, and there are a couple of complaints of sexual misconduct against him.

He is Dr Hall’s apprentice to please his wealthy father, and for a generous allowance is quite happy to go along with it, unfortunately he has tendency to also be as happy as a newt, and a rich young thing and drink are not the best of bedfellows.

Hobbis gives a nice contrast between the confident, world at his feet, do as he pleases Jack at the start of the play to the contrite, apologetic, almost pathetic Jack after making the drunken accusations, looking for forgiveHall's croftness and perhaps even acceptance.

We watch the drama slowly unfold as the layers pile one upon the other. Did Susanna have a past before she married? Did she kiss Jack? Why was she making up a prescription for the Italian disease, as gonorrhoea was known? The Italians got the blame for syphilis as well, incidentally, which they in turn called the French disease, which the French called the English disease, and so on – an early example of European unity.

Director Alison Cahill builds the drama slowly. This is a play with little in the way of action and even the court case doesn’t have the gripping theatre of say murder or treason, with a gibbet as the prize. It is a church court with excommunication as the deterrent which for a drunkard and hedonistic womaniser such as Jack is a far lesser punishment than the risk of losing his allowance.

The garden of Hall's Croft in Stratford-upon-Avon where the play is set

 So the tension has to be built skillfully and slowly, and the interest held by a strong cast who play their parts well, including some well delivered long speeches, particularly by Susanna.

A word too for the set designed by Malcolm Robertshaw which was quite magnificent, a very solid looking representation of the garden at Hall’s Croft, the house in Stratford-upon-Avon by William Shakespeare and given to his daughter as a wedding gift.

The set is full of live herbs, generously supplied incidentally by the National Trust’s Charlcote House near Stratford, an estate where Shakespeare is reputed to have been caught poaching as a young man. It looks a picture, although a couple of plastic pots might be better disguised or their contents transferred to clay containers for authenticity.

There is a clever switch to Worcester Cathedral with Andrew Noakes lighting plunging the rear into darkness apart from a drop down, illuminated  stained glass window and two stone columns being highlighted for a rapid and effective change.

A mention too for Olivia Williams and Ava Cattall who are sharing the small but important role of Elizabeth, the Hal’s daughter.

All in all this is an interesting production of a lesser known play, based on historical fact. It alludes to theories by some that Shakespeare might have suffered from syphilis and although the Bard never appears - the play ends as he is about to be carried into Hall’s Croft as a desperately sick man - he is there in the back ground, as he should be as the 400th anniversary of his death is celebrated.

The move must have worked as he lived another three years after the play was set in 1613, the year when his last play was performed. A fascinating glimpse into a real life Shakespearean drama. To 25-06-16

Roger Clarke


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