Peter Ormerod reviews The Whip, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford
A lot can go wrong with a production like this. A new three-hour play about slavery, oppression and parliamentary machinations, The Whip could easily be heavy, worthy and preachy. Instead it is engrossing, urgent and enlightening, with an engaging clarity and a handsome crispness.
It is a travesty that the story at the centre of Juliet Gilkes Romero's play is not better known. It turns out that the House of Commons vote in 1833 to abolish slavery was not an act of unambiguous virtue after all; rather, it was stained by vanity, venality and hypocrisy. The result led to slavery essentially continuing under another name for five years and enormous pay-offs to slave owners: the cost was £20 billion in today's money, necessitating vast borrowing by the government. This debt was finally settled in 2015. Yes, 2015.
Yet Gilkes Romero stops short of condemning compromise; her programme notes reflect on the fact that the uncompromising approach favoured in the USA led to the American Civil War and 600,000 deaths. The result is a production of rare sophistication, maturity and wisdom, and is essential viewing at a time when many once again seem drawn by the allure of ideological purity.
The play is masterly in its balancing of its many voices and in its subtlety of characterisation. There are no outright heroes or villains here: there is a moral murkiness at work throughout. The whip of the title refers not just to the weapon but to the role of Alexander Boyd, the Whig given the job of getting the Slavery Abolition Act through the Commons. He is convinced of its ethical and practical necessity; his opponents meanwhile fear economic ruin. As if to demonstrate his egalitarian credentials, Boyd has taken into his household and recruited as his assistant a runaway slave, Edmund; Boyd has also been inspired by the words and actions of Mercy Pryce, herself a former slave, now a campaigner for abolition. Horatia Poskitt, an ex-cotton worker from Lancashire, is hired as his maid; the death of her young daughter in a mill has led her to fight against child labour.
The result is messy and complex in all the right ways. Some of the poor living in parliament's shadow initially resent the attention being given to people thousands of miles away. Some abolitionists are so convinced of their own righteousness that they fail to acknowledge their own shortcomings. Mercy is as cunning a political operator as anyone in Westminster; she is at once sustained and constrained by her faith. Horatia's desire for self-improvement has its darker side too. Boyd meanwhile is eager to believe his own publicity, quietly delighting in press reports of his political successes, his dignified and rational manner masking his own desire for status - masking it, perhaps, even from himself.
Kimberley Sykes directs proceedings with pace and purpose. Rowdy scenes set in the Commons chamber are full of gusto and gall; domestic life is portrayed with all its subtle flows of power; Pryce's harrowing Hyde Park speeches are all the more effective for their matter-of-fact, anti-histrionic style. There is precious little gimmickry or cleverness; indeed, perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid is that it is easy to forget the play is being directed at all, so natural and effortless does it appear. It is all framed with a stark beauty by Ciaran Bagnall's unfussy set and lighting.
Classy and nuanced performances abound. In many ways it is an ensemble piece, but that term is perhaps misleading; it is truer to say the role of lead character seems to shift throughout. Richard Clothier blends measured elegance with internal brittleness as Boyd; Debbie Korley never lets Price's mercuriality outweigh her integrity; Corey Montague-Sholay is compellingly enigmatic as Edmund, who reveals more by what he does not say. Katherine Pearce brings pride and power to her depiction of Horatia Poskett, a character who could otherwise be a crude caricature; Tom McCall is the personification of reasonable iniquity as reformist Anthony Bradshaw Cooper; David Birrell's Lord Maybourne exudes the easy-going manner of a man born to rule. Well did they deserve their ovation.
For all the undoubted excellence, however, there remains a sense that this could be even better. The script is perhaps one more edit away from perfection: while many lines soar, a few land with something of a thud, weighed down with needless cliche. It also seems a little unsure of how to end, perhaps going on for about ten minutes too long and ending with a quote from Macbeth that seems a little out of place. And there remains something bordering on the institutional in terms of the RSC's attitude to northern English accents; for some reason, Horatia Poskitt's lines include comical malapropisms, while a few in the audience appeared to think that the very presence of a Lancastrian voice was cause for laughter.
There again, this is a play about the ubiquity of prejudice and the corrupting nature of privilege and patronage. It asks us all, no matter how progressive we may think we are, to reflect on our own bigotry, unspoken or unconscious as it may be: using a reference Pryce would understand, to acknowledge the plank in our own eye. Above all, it shows how abolishing vile acts is the easy part; it is another matter altogether to rid ourselves of vile attitudes.
* The Whip runs until March 21. Visit rsc.org.uk or call 01789 331111 to book.