Northampton’s Royal and Derngate theatre is marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death with a production of The Herbal Bed, first produced at the legendary Other Place theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. PETER FROST reports.
THE Royal and Derngate’s artistic supremo James Dacre is never predictable and his latest contribution to the Shakespeare commemorations is The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan (below), a play exploring the life of Shakespeare’s daughter.
Directed by James Dacre for English Touring Theatre, it is a remarkable production of a remarkable play.
It was written in the 1990s, when the Nolan Committee had laid down some basic principles on standards in public life and just as John Major’s Tory government carried out the most blatant lying whitewash with the Scott report on British arms dealers’ corruption abroad.
Whelan’s play uses a hypocritical puritan religious trial as a dramatic metaphor to debate those issues of the manipulation of public opinion, just as Arthur Miller had in The Crucible where his religious court sheds light on the anti-communist witch hunt trials of the 1950s.
Twenty years after its first production The Herbal Bed is still a fascinating piece and the new Northampton production builds on its past success.
Shakespeare’s daughter is publicly accused of adultery with her neighbour. Her husband chooses to stand by her, taking her accuser to the archbishop’s court for slander. The story, based upon real events in the summer of 1613, still thrills.
Whelan’s moving and uplifting play has lasted well and provides a beautiful evocation of life in Shakespearean England as well as exploring what are still relevant issues.
I first saw it in 1996 and the succeeding two decades speak volumes about the way British theatre has changed.
Whelan had written his play that year specifically for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Other Place, an improvised tin hut-turned-theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon that had changed the kind of productions that the company was bringing to the public.
Whelan’s first play, sent unsolicited to the RSC, established his working-class credentials. Captain Swing, a sympathetic account of the farm worker’s protest riots of 1830, started at the Other Place and moved to the West End as did The Herbal Bed, which became a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Today we are used to seeing plays in all sorts of buildings other than conventional theatres, so perhaps it is hard to realise just what a revolutionary idea the RSC’s Other Place really was.
Converted from a rehearsal room in 1974, this prefabricated corrugated tin hut became home to some of the company’s most exciting small-scale and experimental work, both of classical productions and work from new and exciting writers like Whelan.
The Other Place was the brainchild of a theatre revolutionary named Buzz Goodbody (below). From the unlikely background of a Roedean scholarship, Buzz joined the Communist Party at the age of 15. She would remain a communist and a militant feminist all her short life.
At the newly established Sussex University she tried acting but discovered that “all the best roles are written for blokes.” She turned to directing and adapted and staged Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground as part of her Honours thesis.
The production won a National Student Drama Festival award and eventually transferred to the West End. Theatre soon became the outlet for both her creativity and her politics.
John Barton, the RSC’s co-founder, offered her a job as his assistant. She threw herself into Theatregoround, the radical and politically aware RSC group touring schools, factories and colleges.
She assisted on main-stage Stratford productions too and directed some of her own, bringing a feminist theme to the Elisabethan thriller Arden of Faversham.
Her King John, with Patrick Stewart, helped build her directorial reputation. She was the first female director at the RSC and some would claim the first ever female director on the classical British stage.
At the RSC Goodbody campaigned for the company to build a small experimental theatre, a space to attract new audiences. She wanted to sell tickets for 75p. And she wanted the company to find a new political purpose.
She argued for a low-budget studio auditorium aimed at an audience of local factory workers from Coventry and Birmingham and schoolchildren. RSC actors already under contract would ensure the productions were first class.
Her dream would become reality as The Other Place.
Her productions included a polemical re-staging of the Oz obscenity trial, while a feminist As You Like It had Eileen Atkins slipping into blue jeans as the disguised Rosalind.
Her cut-down production of King Lear in 1974, intended for young people, had a prologue that linked Elisabethan vagrancy laws with poverty among elderly people in 1970s Britain. It was a cult hit and even transferred to New York.
Tragically Buzz Goodbody was to take her own life, aged just 29, in April 1975. Her production of Hamlet, with a young Ben Kingsley in the title role, had just opened to rave reviews.
The BBC commented that her suicide had “robbed the theatre of one of its most promising directors.”
The Royal and Derngate production (below) reminds us too that the British stage lost one of its finest writers when Whelan died in the summer of 2014.
- The Herbal Bed runs until February 27 box office: royalandderngate.co.uk and then tours nationally until May 7, details ett.org.uk
- First published in the Morning Star 14 February 2016.
- ***** A great production, a clever set and a superb cast earn five stars from this reviewer.