My first impression of The Whip, newly commissioned from Juliet Gilkes Romero by the RSC, was that it was a sensitive, intelligent and intentionally troubling docudrama. By the end I was not only fascinated by the information it was imparting, but also completely engaged by the dilemmas and torments of all the characters or increasingly angry at those characters who were acting totally from selfishness and amorality. Gilkes Romero is an investigative journalist and the play deals with factual material about how slavery was finally abolished by the UK parliament in the UK and the colonies in 1833. Though the end result is to be celebrated, the machinations, the bargaining, the blackmailing, and the compromises that emerge as the tale unfolds are disturbing. One startling fact is that the slave-holders were paid huge sums for the loss of their “property” while the slaves themselves were deemed too inferior to know how to use their freedom or find jobs and therefore were indentured to servitude as apprentices for another seven years, effectively perpetuating slavery by another name. The debt to profit the slavers was so great that it was finally only discharged in 2015. I suppose that one of the points if that these events are not dissimilar from things as they operate in any democracy or parliament today if you are going to get anything done. It is all about the haggling and the compromises and whether, in the end, the result is worth the price.
Juliet Gilkes Romero has clearly done considerable research into her subject and the impact of the events on the stage is to make one fully believe in and consider what it took to get the bill passed. As for the characters, by the end of the evening one is particularly sympathetic to the former slave Edmund, played with intense intelligence by Corey Montague-Sholay, someone who was rescued by the chief Whip of the Whig Party, Alexander Boyd; to Horatia Poskitt, played with an engaging emotional range by Katherine Pearce, an ex-cotton mill worker who comes to the home of Boyd for a job and has a back story that finally emerges with clarity and pathos; to Mercy Pryce, played memorably by Debbie Korley, a runaway slave and vocal abolitionist who knows how to play her audiences. All of these and more are perhaps fictional characters, but they are also composites of real people. The historic characters such as William Purnell (Nicholas Gerard-Martin) or Cornelius Hyde Villers (the brilliant John Cummins) sound at times as if at least some of their speeches must be lifted or paraphrased directly from Hansard and the whole evening has a sense not just of truth displayed on the stage but also of the drama and pain behind these events. Kimberley Sykes has done an exemplary job directing her troupe; they are a strong, coherent and totally united ensemble. The stage set is simple, direct and utterly functional.
But my top reason for wanting to see again this complex, troubling, sincere and deserving play about the conflict between moral duty or understanding and personal ambition and greed is the performance by Richard Clothier as Alexander Boyd. He is the Chief Whip of the abolitionist Whigs with, as the play starts, a sincere agenda of wanting to help workers in the satanic mills of the cotton industry. But he is also ambitious and enticed to switch to supporting the abolition legislation partly by the offer of a promotion. Patrician, eloquent, controlling his inner volatility and moral distress, the strong and compelling performance by Richard Clothier is gripping and at the very centre of the action throughout. Clothier seems to be acting with every fibre of his being and completely conveys the struggle of a man with a mission who must compromise and even to a degree sell himself out to achieve his personal and moral ambitions. His is an utterly thought-provoking and appealing performance.
The background score by Akinatayo Akinbode that adds to the atmosphere. This is a substantial and moving play well-directed and strongly performed.
- By Juliet Gilkes Romero
- Directed by Kimberley Sykes
- Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company
- Music composed by Akintayo Akinborde
- Cast includes: Richard Clotheir, Cory Montague-Sholay, David Birrell, Katherine Pearce, Debbie Korley, John Cummins
- Swan Theatre
- Until 20 March 2020