The Whip, Swan Theatre, Stratford, to March 21.
There are two sides to The Whip. One is the whip used to lash the black backs of slaves working all hours in appalling conditions for wealthy white businessmen based half a world away. The other is the Chief Whip in the House of Commons – Lord Alexander Boyd in this case, played with fruity-voiced world-weariness by Richard Clothier.
Boyd evidently sees himself as a good man. After all, he has taken in two escapees from hellish workplaces. One is his butler Edmund, played by Corey Montague-Sholay, a black former slave. The other is Horatia Poskitt (Katharine Pearce), a white former mill worker from Blackburn, Lancashire, who now works in The Whip’s kitchen, despite her somewhat limited culinary skills.
There are some touching scenes in Juliet Gilkes Romero’s play. A truly shocking one too at the end of part one where the violence inflicted on a woman happens not in a sugar plantation or a mill but in Hyde Park.
By that time Horatia had been gaining the confidence to speak out, inspired by former slave Mercy Pryce (Debbie Korley). Despite their different colours and backgrounds, the two women have much in common. Both have lost daughters through unspeakable cruelty. Both have scars and bruises to compare from the conditions that they have endured. Both come together at the end to speak out against the injustices of a man’s world.
You can see why. Lord Boyd loses all credibility by resorting to the deviousness of Chief Whips down the ages to push through a very dodgy deal to appease the slave owners and get the 1833 Abolition Bill on to the statute book. So dodgy indeed that British tax payers were shelling out for their compensation until 2015 – the slave owners and their descendants, that is, not the slaves.
Cue much self-satisfied preening from politicians and businessmen. One of the most pernicious of those ruthless money-grabbers goes under the name of Cornelius Hyde Villers. John Cummins plays him with a vigorous self-assurance that stands out most memorably among many a memorable performance.
Under Kimberley Sykes’s direction, the scenes change quickly with a minimum of fuss. Over two and a half hours of intense drama seem to pass in an instant. Only on the journey home does indignation rise as the imagination tries to grapple with the sheer financial scale of one of the greatest rip-offs of all time.
For tickets go to: https://www.rsc.org.uk/
Picture: Steve Tanner RSC