SHAKESPEARE’S TOWN LAID BEFORE US
The year 1613: somewhere offstage old Shakespeare is dying, and in her husband’s physic-garden, competent and dignified, his daughter Susanna assists her middle-aged husband Doctor Hall. She manages her small daughter and the maid Hester, laughs with the neighbour Rafe Smith who comes by to sell ribbons, and impatiently fends off the young buck Jack, a local grandee’s son who is supposed to be learning herbal medicine from the doctor. Jack, bright but unreliable, rattles off his lessons about worm-poultices, women with “irregular lunar evacuations” and the use of lead and turpentine against “Signor Gonhorrea, the Italian disease”. That is, when he is not sticking his hand in Hester’s skirt or conjuring up unwelcome memories of boyhood days when he, Rafe and Susanna all larked together by the Avon.
Peter Whelan’s play, revived with perfect timing in the quatercentenary, draws you in with effortless grace, evoking from the start both the period and the intimate family tensions . Emma Lowndes’ Susanna seems almost an Ibsen heroine, married to an undemonstrative academic and more than tempted by Rafe (Philip Correia) who is in an unhappy marriage after the death of his two children. Lowndes gives Susanna a spirited individuality, at first seemingly wrapped in duty, but wilder, on the edge of infidelity when she finds herself alone in the night-scented garden with Rafe, and “Love’s alchemy” makes wrong things right. He is the one who, gripped by honour, hesitates.
Their desire, though unconsummated, is almost her downfall when the irritated, sacked and arrogant Jack (Matt Whitchurch, every inch the Hooray Henry) drunkenly denounces her in the pub for adultery. Clerical court records of the year show that Susanna did defend such an accusation. The doctor reacts with disbelief and horror and defends her honour vigorously yet – with a marvellous, layered, ambiguous performance by Jonathan Guy Lewis – he knows deep down that his wife’s heart is not quite his. Susanna, only technically innocent, suborns Hester to a whiteish lie about the order of events on that evening. Again, the two women’s relationship is beautifully evoked (and Charlotte Wakefield’s Hester gets her great scene later on).
When it becomes clear that the Church court will not sit before the mellow old Santa-bearded Bishop but his Vicar-General, a suitable shudder runs through us because in an artful opening scene Whelan lets us glimpse Michael Mears’ Goche: a tall grim figure in Puritan black and tight cap who looms and shudders like a tall disapproving ferret as he condemns the morality of the doctor’s trade, since illness is clearly a divine punishment. We foresee trouble, and indeed when Jonathan Fensom’s pretty garden set abruptly becomes an echoing Worcester Cathedral, Mears gives a terrific pouncing, chilly, hypnotically alarming interrogation as poor Hester the country girl sways with cathedral vertigo, looking up at the soaring God-filled vaulting overhead.
So we have a society in change: passionate modern lovers, a dutiful decent scientist (“I am no bigot, I treat Roman Catholics, even a Popish priest”). We have the arrogant gentry hooray-Henry making trouble, and the cold Churchman grasping atavistically at Godly power. Director James Dacre, who leads this theatre, a few years back memorably directed another Whelan play , the WW1 story of The Accrington Pals. Here the same sense of careful respect of period combines with universal recognizable humanity in a tight, instinctively connected ensemble.
In his programme notes Dacre reflects on modern parallels: intrusion, private lives hypocritically exposed, a dramatic inquisitorial public inquiry. But for me the greatest pleasure was the sense of 17c smalltown England, lovingly and domestically evoked. Scientific effort and religious power, private desires defying convention, serious debates about honour and the heart: Shakespeare’s world. He may have set Othello and Iago in distant wars and made jealous Leontes a king, but he had seen their archetypes in just such a Stratford as this.
Box office: 01604 624811 / http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk to 27 Feb
then touring to 7 May – Cambridge next.