Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Whip by Juliet Gilkes Romero at the RSC

We went to see ‘The Whip’ on Monday, and it was brilliant. Which does not make it the easiest play to write about. My theatre companion and I have been discussing it ever since with undiminished enthusiasm.

We’re not generally very excited about contemporary plays, and even less keen when they deal with big issues - our experience with these has not been particularly encouraging. There’s often a depressing tendency to over explain and emphasise in a way that can feel patronising and clumsy.

The Whip doesn’t do that, partly because it’s not a single issue play. It hinges around the attempts to get the bill through parliament in 1833 that abolishes slavery. We know it gets through, but the history that we’ve chosen to remember sort of stops there. It was a tweet from the treasury in 2018 that highlighted the fact that as a country we only finished paying off the debt for reparation to slave owners in 2015, and an iniquitous apprenticeship scheme.

There are also reform bills in the offing to regulate the conditions in factories, and to change the poor laws, and a growing interest in women’s suffrage, and indeed full suffrage for men. All of these things are woven together along with a gripping political drama about the process of getting an act through.

Men who appear to be idealistic reformers turn out to have equally reactionary ideas on other subjects, and feet of clay in general. We all know what’s right and wrong, but the question is how you put right something that’s wrong without making things worse. The very idea of reparation to slave owners is disgusting, but without it there’s no chance of the legislation being voted through, and every chance of serious civil unrest.

There is question after question about morality, along with gentle reminders of how desperate things were for the poor in Britain. Terrible working conditions, coupled with poor laws that severely restricted mobility, which raises more questions. For me perhaps the biggest being why wasn’t the cost of reparation a scandal that lasted. How did that get brushed under the historical carpet?

It’s not a short play, and it’s emotional watching, but we spent most of it on the edge of our seats (the impression was that the test of the audience was the same). In a Twitter world identity politics are so polarised that it becomes intimidating to try and engage - questions rarely seem welcome. Spending a few hours watching something that both encourages questions and embraces the moral shades of grey and complexities of a situation felt liberating.

It’s a clever, interesting, thoughtful, powerful, play with an amazing cast (quite a lot of them are also on King John) that work beautifully together. There are excellent performances from Corey Montague-Sholey, Katherine Pearce (who is amazing in King John too), Debbie Korley, and Richard Clothier in the big parts, and they feel like generous performances as well - ones that give everybody involved the chance to shine.

It’s absolutely worth trying to catch this whilst it’s on (for another 5 weeks or so). I’m also really keen now to read everything I can by Juliet Gilkes Romero and would go well out of my way to watch anything else she writes.

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