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The Whip at RSC Swan Theatre - Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Play On Abolishing Slavery That Everyone Should See
If you're disillusioned by politics at the moment, this new play by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) at least reassures you that nothing has changed.

The whip, RSC, swan theatre, plays about slavery, Stratford upon Avon
The Whip is a passionate drama about slavery


Set in the Victorian era, The Whip retells how the law to abolish slavery was passed through British parliament with help from the chief whip of the Whig Party Alexander Boyd.

But what on surface -level sounds like an admiral move by all involved, this astute new play puts into context the politics and questions some of the morality and compromises involved in the final deal.

With hypocrisy, backstabbing and self-serving MPs - this could just as well be about Brexit in 2019.

The Whip is on at The Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon until March 21, and has shades of James Graham's political drama This House about it.

Written by Juliet Gilkes Romero, she cleverly weaves double layers of meaning at every turn - from the whip of Parliament to the plantation owner's whipping of slaves.

The whip, RSC, swan theatre, plays about slavery, Stratford upon Avon
Provocative and fascinating


It's not a single-issue play either as the plight of working-class child labour in northern cotton mills and Victorian women, in general, are all pulled into the story as it cleverly touches on servitude to different systems.

Opening with a runaway slave-turned-servant taking a knife to his neck, Director Kimberley Sykes grips the audience from the start in this provocative piece and it's not until much later that you understand the reasoning behind this opener.

Moving on to the House Of Commons, the jeers between the speaker and baying politicians are only too familiar of late and recreate Parliament beautifully.

Cotton tunic wearing plantation slaves hang about in the shadows as a constant reminder of what is being fought for and you're never sure who you can trust or their real intentions.

At the centre of the plot is Boyd, whose dignified morals falter under the strain of ambition. Richard Clothier gives an excellent turn as the chief whip, balancing a suave presence but brimming with self-righteousness.

His relationship with assistant Edmund, a runaway slave he rescued, and northern cook Horatia, he's working with to overhaul the cotton mills, gives him a complexity beyond the black and white.

The whip, RSC, swan theatre, plays about slavery, Stratford upon Avon
Actors Richard Clothier centre and Tom McCall


Alongside the political, there's the human emotion that makes this riveting. The joshing between servants Edmund and Horatia gives light relief while the solidarity between campaigning abolitionist and slave escapee Mercy Pryce and Horatia, as women on the wrong side of the policeman's truncheon, is the strongest bond in the play.

Debbie Korley is charismatic as Mercy and her emotive speech recounting experiences as a slave in the Caribbean creates an uncomfortable tension - an unpalatable truth.

Rising talent Katherine Pearce, who impressed recently in King John for the RSC, once again stands out, this time as sassy grieving mother Horatia.

Corey Montague-Sholay is intensely watchable as assistant Edmund, whose on a journey of self-discovery from glorification of Boyd as his saviour to realisation that he has swapped one enslavement for another.

The whip, RSC, swan theatre, plays about slavery, Stratford upon Avon
Debbie Korley as Mercy and Katherine Pearce as Horatia


As I said, this multi-layered play is about more than just the emancipation of slaves across the empire, it's about slaves within the class system as well as to ambition.

The Act that was passed made compromises that ultimately lined the plantation owners' pockets, many of whom sat in Parliament at that time, and tied freed slaves into a harsh apprenticeship programme for years.

This story paints a fresh picture around that moment and is a masterful piece of meaningful theatre that everyone should see.

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Why? Thought-provoking play about abolishing the slavery law
When: Until 21 March, 2020
Phone: 01789 331111
Where: Swan Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: From 35
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