Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – 21 March 2020
What Is It? Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new full-length show for the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Kimberley Sykes. What Is It About? The Whip’s title, with its symbolic and literal dual meaning, perhaps encapsulates best what this show is about. Following the struggles of the Whig Party Chief Whip, Alexander Boyd, The Whip explores the sordid and morally bankrupt political process that led to the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act by British parliament in 1838.
Running parallel to the fraught and hypocritical debates about the moral vs. financial cost of slavery are the domestic concerns of workers rights and class struggles, bringing to light the stark similarities between 19th century Britain and the racially fuelled quandaries of our country today.
How Did It Make Me Feel? Given our current political climate, stories that examine Britain’s colonial past are needed now more than ever. Our complicity with the destruction and abuse of peoples of colour and their cultures has been widely erased from the public consciousness – a lack of general education about the part the British Empire had to play in the slave trade has given rise to a rose tinted view of our colonial past. Narratives that provide the balance of colonial critique are much needed and while The Whip has its merits in presenting such a narrative, this is not a show without its flaws.
The greatest issue for me with this play is the way it is framed in terms of perspective. The show’s primary narrative – for this is a play that contains many, if not too many, plot strands – is from the perspective of older, white male politicians. While Richard Clothier gives an excellent performance as Alexander Boyd, for me there was a lack of intrigue about his story. Seeing an upperclass white man’s struggles, however just they may be in the fight for emancipation and equality, felt somewhat safe and pedestrian.
Indeed, the show only truly sparks into life in the second half as Corey Montague-Sholay’s Edmund, Katherine Pearce’s Horatia and Debbie Korley’s Mercy Pryce were allowed more of the spotlight. It is in these characters, who are the voices for the working classes, people of colour, and women, that held my greatest interest, but in a show with such a dense plot, they were not afforded the space they needed to produce moments of hard hitting pathos or revelation.
Indeed, this play has a feel of too many worthy narratives jostling for keen examination – while the emancipation of black slaves is what drives the primary plot, the contemporary struggle for British workers rights and the injustices of the cotton mills vies for equal attention.
Yet, perhaps this is the point. At every point in history, foreign and domestic affairs have contended for public scrutiny with equal vigour – no one struggle exists in a political or social vacuum. It is no wonder therefore that this show needs almost three hours in which to examine its subjects, yet this broad view somewhat takes away from the voices of those that need to heard through the annals of history – the voices of the enslaved. Anything Else? While this show highlights the moral complexity of the abolitionist movement, the density of the plot does not enable the emotional weight of the piece to translate to its audience. Alexandra x The Whip is playing at the Swan Theatre, RSC until March 21st 2020. If you like our reviews and want to support this blog feel free to buy any of us a virtual coffee here!