I was not sure what to expect from the RSC’s The Whip as I entered the darkly lit theatre with only a table on stage, but the atmosphere from the very start was palpable. With a relatively small cast in period costume, The Whip held my attention from start to finish. Written by Juliet Gilkes Romero and directed by Kimberley Sykes, the play dramatises the political run up to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 – proposing to end all slavery in the British Colonies. The play tackles the difficulty of moral duty and political compromise, posing the poignant question: what is the right thing to do, and how much will it cost?
Although the staging was minimal, and props were brought on and off by the actors, at the back of the stage were raised steps, half disguised by intricate vertical wooden beams, which provided a metaphorical cage behind the main action. The extras, two women (Bridgitta Roy and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) and two men (Riad Richie and Michael Abubakar), stood in as workers, politicians, journalists and passers-by, wearing the same plain, grubby shift-dresses and linen trousers throughout – offering the audience a visual juxtaposition of the plantation slaves and the poverty-stricken workers at home, functioning behind the formally-dressed main characters.
The story follows Chief Whip Alexander Boyd, played by Richard Clothier, a Whig Politian focussed on ending child labour and the terrible working conditions in the cotton-mills. However, Boyd is convinced by his slave-owning colleague Lord Maybourne (David Birrell) to pause his current focus and take the reins on the Abolition Act. As of 1807, British Atlantic Slave trade had been abolished, but not the practice of slavery. With an increasing rise in plantation-riots and revolts happening across the British Colonies, and pressure from the growing Anti-Slavery movement in Britain, the play recreates the pressures on the government to end slavery once and for all.
However, with the potential threat to the economy through a loss of sugar and cotton trade, and with many of the MPs at this time being slave owners themselves, The Whip asks what the price of freedom really is – and the answer is not as clear-cut as it should have been. Most MPs, both Whig and Tory, would be personally and financially affected by the Abolition Act, but also due to benefit from the potential millions in slave owners’ compensation in order to emancipate all British Colony slaves – some 800,000 people.
In The Whip, spurred on by Tory MP Cornelius Hyde Villiers (John Cummins), as he fights to get as much compensation as possible for his 700 slaves, the story shows the back-and-forth discussion of not only the compensation figure, but also the idea, originally suggested by William Wilberforce, that slaves would need to complete apprentice work to prepare them for working life. Despite Boyd’s, and his pro-abolition equivalents’, best efforts to remove the apprenticeship clause from the Act, the final bill passed with a gradual emancipation, following a seven-year, unpaid or low-paid apprenticeship (often in worse conditions than before), and almost £20 million set aside – 40 per cent of the country’s national budget – for the owner’s compensation. Through continued campaigning, the apprenticeship scheme was finally abolished, and full emancipation was granted in 1838. However, the Act did not apply to slaves owned by the East India Company, the Island of Ceylon and Saint Helena.
Aside from the political corruption and manipulation, the supporting characters, two runaway slaves – Mercy Pryce and Edmund – share their stories alongside ex-cotton worker Horatia Poskitt, who is fighting her own personal battle after losing her young daughter in a cotton-mill accident. Detailing their own horrific stories, these characters offer the life experiences that seem so absent from the political sphere. While there were outstanding performances from all of the main characters, the relationship between Horatia (played by Katherine Pearce) and Edmund (Corey Montague-Sholay) as they work for Boyd, provided not only a more personal touch to the story, but a light comic relief. Equally, in her role as Mercy Pryce, based on the famous runaway Mary Prince, Debbie Korley brought equal parts humility, grace and strength to a difficult role. Her common-ground relationship with Horatia also paid tribute to the tireless work of the women in this period fighting for abolition and human rights.
Gilkes Romero’s script is carefully written to draw out the hypocrisy, the personal conflict, and the compromise of such a monumental decision, and this impeccably acted piece of theatre is both as relevant today as it is historically poignant. The compensation loan was only paid off in 2015 according to a 2018 tweet from HM Treasury. The decision to spend much needed British-taxes to help emancipate absent figures (and to pay off already wealthy slave owners) is a constant point of tension, when children and adults in Britain are living in poverty and being put in early graves working in cotton-mills. While this compromise is revealed to be the only means to an end, the play works to further highlight that slavery was exchanged for other forms of exploitation. The final scene ends with a discussion between Boyd and Maybourne, contemplating the idea of the workhouse, as an initiative to ease the troubled poor. The Whip not only asks what the price of freedom is, but whether freedom really means what we think it does.
The Whip is showing at the RSC’s Swan Theatre until 21 March 2020.