When we have all got past the current worldwide crisis there will, no doubt, be playwrights reflecting on the time that everything stopped and use current circumstances as the backdrop to many a drama. However, the pandemic is not the only event from 2020 which will remain in the national consciousness. There’s that little matter of Brexit – but don’t worry, I’m not going there. And there’s also the momentous events of the #BlackLivesMatter movement which, particularly in the UK raised the whole spectre of colonialism and the country’s involvement in the slave trade. This is the main subject examined in The Whip by Juliet Gilkes Romero produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company.
The press night for this RSC play was exactly one year ago today; the production was on the last week of its run in March when the orders came for theatres to shut. Denied the culmination of the project, director director Kimberley Sykes and the original cast set to and recorded an audio version of the play which was released last autumn.
It is a timely reminder that when we are taught in school that slavery was abolished in 1833, we are only really getting part of the story. And that’s the part of the story that emphasises the apparently liberal credentials of the elite without examining the profits that were made by the same group of people. For in order to get the owners to agree to releasing their hold on the slaves, there was much political manoeuvring and downright chicanery to ensure the bill got through parliament. A period of up to seven years apprenticeship was established whereby former slaves would continue to work for their owners during a “transition” and they would not be paid during this time. The owners were also compensated out of the public purse to the tune of £20 million (today’s equivalent would be nearer £20 billion); this was finally paid off only in 2015.
There is a lot of necessary “background” to this play but fortunately the writer has found a way to make it palatable, especially now that the production is limited to the aural dimension. Focus is given to particular individuals which takes events sufficiently into the personal arena to make them more relatable and there is a particularly strong emphasis on the role of women.
Former slave Mercy Price takes on the establishment to fight for freedom and finds a soul mate and fellow campaigner in Horatia Poskitt, an ex-mill worker. Although Horatia’s initial concern is with children’s working conditions the two women come to see that they are, essentially, fighting a single cause and combine forces. Horatia (she’s named in honour of Nelson) works for Alexander Boyd, the Whig Party Chief Whip, who is trying to push the abolition bill through Parliament. In order to attain this goal, he is forced to compromise by giving ground to the establishment who are apparently only interested in feathering their own nests – sound familiar? It is this sort of detail which helps the piece to retain its contemporary relevance.
Both Debbie Korley and Katherine Pearce as Mercy and Horatia give powerful and committed performances which, no doubt, burned bright on stage but still manage to enthral across the airwaves. Richard Clothier as Boyd comes over as a decent man caught up in and caught out by events beyond his control who sacrifices some of his principles for what he sees as the greater good. The other key role of Boyd’s ward and runaway slave, Edmund, is played by Corey Montague-Sholay. I suspect his somewhat accusatory presence as an often silent observer came over much more forcefully in the stage version than it can ever hope to do here. The rest of the twelve strong cast form a powerful ensemble playing various roles to flesh out this slice of 19th century life. Fortunately, the show had already had a long enough run for coherence and consistency to develop under Sykes’ strong direction.
While it is, of course, a shame to lose the visual dimension, the recording comes with the original music of Akintayo Akinbode and a plethora of Steve Tanner’s production photos which helps the listener to keep track of the various characters speaking and also to highlight some of the important graphic moments, for example when Mercy reveals the still suppurating whip scars on her back. If the #BlackLivesMatter events of last year such as the death of George Floyd or the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue into Bristol harbour intrigued, moved or even appalled you, then you will find this play richly rewarding as it makes a very strong case for re-evaluating the usually received narrative of the time. Listening will provide a quality experience both in terms of content and education and there’s a “listen-along” tonight (February 11th ) to mark the first anniversary of the original press night.