A review by Julia Gasper
A production by English Touring Theatre, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, and Rose Theatre.
Witty above her sex, but that’s not all,
Wise to Salvation was good Mistress Hall.
That is how her epitaph (or “epithet” according to Wikipedia) described Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, who is the subject of this play. Being witty and wise, and married to a respected doctor, John Hall, did not protect her against slander in small and gossipy society of Stratford-apon-Avon where she was living a few streets away from her sick and aged father in 1613.
This play is well-timed for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April 1616. We can use it as a moment to stop and reflect about this national Bard who is still studied by most, if not all, of our pupils in schools. He was a warm-blooded man who knew what passion was, and it would be surprising if his daughter was a total stranger to it. He died at fifty-two, suffering from something that all the herbal wisdom and apothecary’s skill of his time could not cure. In his last years, he was often in the company of his son-in-law. The two of them sat on a parish council that was dealing with pressing matters such as land enclosure. Shakespeare and Hall took a line in favour of land-owners against the poor and dispossessed, upholding the rights of those who erected boundaries and fences around areas of formerly common land. It may well be that Shakespeare’s own epitaph contains oblique allusions to this dominant concern in Stratford at the time of his death:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
Enclosure was an unusual term for burial, and bones could be a pun on “bounds”, i.e. boundaries, usually marked in this time with stones. The burghers of Stratford had little patience with rebellious “diggers” who came and removed boundaries because they thought that enclosure was the theft of the common land. Once Shakespeare had sided with the poor and outcast in King Lear, but there is little sign of it in his declining years.
Peter Whelan has taken some intriguing facts from archives and turned them into a psychological drama. Why did a wellborn drunkard called Jack Lane accuse Susanna of adultery with a married haberdasher? Was it merely because the haberdasher, Ralph Smith, was a notorious Puritan, or did Lane have some underlying resentment? Why did Lane think Susanna had a venereal disease? Why did Ralph Smith so frequent the household of the doctor who had failed to save the lives of his two children – was it merely because they had a lot of theological convictions in common, or did he find the doctor’s wife attractive? Susanna got status and security when she married the doctor of the town in 1607, but whether she really loved him is another matter. They had only one child, born a year after the marriage, and the view Peter Whelan takes of this curious affair is that there is no smoke without fire. Without actual adultery, there may be many yearnings, desires and passions operating below the surface.
John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis) in this production is made to look quite a lot of older than he actually was; he was thirty-nine but looks more like forty-nine; and Susanna (Emma Lowndes) is still young and attractive. Like many wives of the time, Susanna is effectively a partner in her husband’s business. She knows all the herbs that he grows in their garden and she studies the books of remedies, reading in both English and Latin. When she needs to, she prepares the medicines herself, a transgressive behaviour that could get you accused of witchcraft in this period.
Matt Whitchurch gives an outstanding performance as Jack Lane, making the loose and tipsy gentleman’s son into a real Sir Toby Belch character. He is motivated by a grudge because Hall has decided not to train him as a doctor; moreover, he can’t stand puritans and suspects they are all hypocrites. The other outstanding performance is that of Michael Mears as Barnabas Goche, the assistant to the Bishop of Worcester (Patrick Driver), whose ecclesiastical court hears the case for slander. He turns it into a veritable witch-hunt. Not content with a guilty plea from Lane, who does not turn up, Goche pursues his suspicions of some goings-on behind the scenes, and cross-examines Susanna and even her maid Hester searchingly. In Shakespeare’s plays, any wife accused of infidelity must be wholly exonerated, for the sake of her reputation. Susanna is neither a pure Hermione nor a wicked Goneril or Regan; she is a more nuanced and flawed human being.
There are a few unsubtle touches that mar this play: the expression “cheats in love” is a bit too East-enders, and we don’t need to be told that Hester lied or that Shakespeare also “lied” to his wife all the time. I think the audience can be left to work out some things for themselves. Nevertheless, for anyone who has an interest in Shakespeare, his family, his times, the history of marriage, and the history of herbalism, this is a production well worth seeing, with sets, costumes and just a few carefully chosen background sounds that create the right atmosphere.
Julia Gasper 20th April 2016.
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