It’s one of the points of “The Herbal Bed” that there is no absolute truth, so it comes as a plausible (if on this occasion disheartening) corollary to report that there is no one Royal Shakespeare Company production of Peter Whelan’s Olivier-nominated play. Snugly ensconced last summer in Stratford’s Other Place, minutes from the milieu the play describes, “The Herbal Bed” placed the 65-year-old Whelan virtually alone among British dramatists as a relatively little-known elder statesman whose history plays carried real heft.
Now, he has at least reached the West End — his 1992 RSC “The School of Night,” about Marlowe and Shakespeare, was long supposed to but never did — and the results, I’m afraid, leave one longing for the new play’s previous incarnation. What has gone wrong since Stratford? Suffice it to say that an opening-night technical glitch with Robert Jones’ set served as a metaphor for a commercial transfer gone awry. Though the offstage personnel remain in place, director Michael Attenborough included, the play’s former passion no longer does: An evening that sent one sizzling into the Stratford night air is now likely to leave audiences wondering, what’s the fuss?
The story remains a potential corker: Drawing upon an actual charge of defamation in 1607 brought by Shakespeare’s elder daughter, Susanna (Teresa Banham), against a boozy local gentleman, Jack Lane (Barnaby Kay), Whelan has the ingredients for a sparkling courtroom drama with enough elements of “Measure for Measure” (among other Shakespeare texts) to suggest that the 20th century dramatist is not lightly invoking his Elizabethan forebear.
Letting his imagination take over where actual records leave off, Whelan sends Susanna into the arms of local haberdasher Rafe Smith (Richard Hawley) in a mutual lust that, nonetheless, remains unconsummated, thereby giving the lie to Lane’s implication that she has gonorrhea. Rafe, it seems, has lost both his children, a tragedy for which his (unseen) wife blames local physician John Hall (Lorcan Cranitch), Susanna’s husband. Susanna, in turn, is aware that she married a profession, not a man, and sees in Rafe a momentary way out of a life of erotic waste.
Its charged emotions apart, the real topic of the play is the moral price exacted by every deed, word or silence at a time when Puritan dogma is making itself felt in life no less than in the theater. (The Puritans closed playhouses throughout the country in 1642.) Insisting on “scour(ing) the cauldron clean,” the vicar-general (a fierce Stephen Boxer) leading the inquisition against Susanna speaks with a rabid fervor that has multiple echoes today. By play’s end, Susanna must learn to dissemble in order to honor larger eternal truths. As she decides it, “honesty is not one thing”; nor are love and loyalty.
“The Herbal Bed” depends upon vibrant playing that takes an audience with the characters’ flights of rapture (and overrides Whelan’s fruitier passages about the alchemy of love that sometimes recall the lyrics to “Aspects of Love”). But largely recast for the West End, the play has lost two points of the central triangle that gave Attenborough’s once-pacy staging its fizz. Instead of Joseph Fiennes and David Tennant as Rafe and Jack, respectively, we now have Richard Hawley (too old and uncharismatic) and Barnaby Kay (too odious). Whereas Tennant played Jack as a fundamentally likable man led astray by his laddish impulses, Kay reinvents the same character as so troublesome from the start that it is difficult to see how he ever gained entry into the Hall household.
Lacking anyone to play against, Banham now acts mostly to the house in a series of breathy arias that couldn’t sound less spontaneous. To that end, she’s not helped by writing that seems declamatory (and overripe with exposition) where it once conveyed a moving intimacy. Heaven knows the West End could use plays as serious-minded as “The Herbal Bed,” but its current incarnation has the feeling of drama as medicine while one waits in vain to rediscover its genuine attributes as so much theatrical balm.