Review – The Whip, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 11th February 2020

85037056_2640541812857072_4756856668946432_nOdd title, The Whip. The first thing it brought to my mind was that implement with which you punish horses, or people, into painful submission. The second thing was a walnut-topped chocolatey confection, which sadly was very wide of the mark. The prime relevance of the title refers to its main character, Alexander Boyd, Chief Whip of the Whig Party in 1833, when this play is set. And of course, a political Whip is named after that aforementioned instrument of torture, as they whip the other MPs into the subservient position of what the party leaders want.

BoydA quick pre-show flick through the programme shamed me into recognising my own ignorance when it comes to the history of slavery – and, as far this play is concerned, how Parliament – eventually – brought about its abolition in Britain. I had no idea, for example, that there was a 26-year gap between passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and the Slavery Abolition Act. Nor that after abolition, the Government introduced a period of “apprenticeship” for the former slaves – where in fact they carried on precisely the same work, on virtually the same conditions; today we call them interns (just joking, or am I?) The only real difference is that the Slave Owners had been recompensed handsomely for loss of stock. These apprenticeships continued for a further five years. And I certainly didn’t know that the sums paid to the Slave Owners amounted to 40% of the national budget, and the necessary borrowing to account for this didn’t get paid off until – wait for it – 2015.

MaybourneIt’s clear that Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play is not only an exposé of those miserable years but also reflects parallels to Britain today. It’s emphatically not an allegory of Brexit; if it’s meant to be, it does a poor job. But there are elements that go to show that nothing is new in the world of British politics. A major project, with popular support, takes many years to be implemented. As a result of the final negotiations, a few prominent MPs and other businessmen become extraordinarily rich, whilst the country’s coffers are plundered. It takes ages for the country to regain its feet financially, the whole process creates a starting point for further political upheavals. On second thoughts, perhaps it is an allegory of Brexit.

Boyd on the Front BenchWe meet Boyd, who has befriended and adopted a younger runaway slave, Edmund, and groomed him to greatness with the possibility of a Parliamentary career. Boyd’s a good man, a principled man, with his heart in the right place; but also a practical man, who knows you have to walk before you can run. We see him in the House of Commons, surrounded by a noisy rabble and a Speaker whose pronouncements are delivered exactly like John Bercow, and he stands out as thoroughly respectable. He engages a feisty young woman, Horatia, as his cook/maid, not only because she stands up for herself, but also because her daughter was killed in a cotton-mill accident, and he feels like she is the kind of person who should be given a second chance. Also involved is the eloquent and respected ex-slave Mercy Pryce, who addresses the crowds at Speakers’ Corner, and who works with Boyd to influence thought and opinion. Whilst Mercy strives towards justice for slaves and Horatia demands votes for women, just how much will Society sit back and let all that change simply happen? And will Edmund achieve the greatness that Boyd expects of him?

FuriesGiven that this is a fascinating time of history, with some remarkable people working hard to put right an inestimable wrong, which still has consequences for the world today, I was disappointed at how pedestrian and dull the first Act, in particular, turns out to be. It’s very wordy and turgid; it moves slowly and with a strange sense of worthiness. It lacks dramatic tension and that special magic. Maybe this is because the play has been constructed as a kind of Greek Tragedy; with four characters designated as The Furies, the classical deities of vengeance. There’s a scene later in the play when Boyd goes to the Commons and is beset by the Furies who bump into him and accost him and prevent him from achieving his goals. And, frankly, it looks ridiculous. Particularly as, for the most part, the Furies act as scene shifters and general gophers. It’s the Furies who, Chorus-like,  wind up the story by addressing the audience directly with details of how the national debt from paying the Slave Owners wasn’t in the clear until 2015. But unlike a Greek Tragedy, we don’t have some cataclysmic ending or a deus ex machina to draw a line under the whole proceedings. The mix of contemporary political drama and stylised Greek tragedy didn’t sit well and I’m afraid I couldn’t take the Furies seriously.

HoratiaPerhaps the main problem with the play – which is a brave problem and therefore to be admired – is that it is simply too ambitious, trying to tie up too many ideas, and trying to make too many associations, so that it stretches itself without resolving anything. Whilst it spends a long time establishing the characterisations of the protagonists, the story doesn’t progress much, and everything feels ponderous and cumbersome – like that really irritating table that descends and ascends throughout the whole evening as a centrepiece for many of the scenes. Never has a simple piece of furniture-shifting monopolised your sightline so much as to get in the way of telling a story.

Mercy and HoratiaFortunately, there are some very good performances that just about pull you through the long three hours of this show. The double-act, if you could call them that, of Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce and Katherine Pearce as Horatia Poskitt, provide most of the energy of the play. Ms Pearce impresses with her spiky retorts and generally bullish behaviour so that the stage brightens up when she comes on. Ms Korley’s measured and dignified performance completely challenges your preconceptions about how an ex-slave would behave.

Hyde VilliersRichard Clothier’s Boyd is also full of dignity – until he’s brought low by duplicitous colleagues – and he gives a great portrayal of a flawed, but good man in the most trying of circumstances. He also has an extraordinarily rich voice that demands your attention. John Cummins’ Cornelius Hyde Villiers is a nasty piece of work, in politics for all the wrong, self-seeking reasons, but creates a very believable person out of what otherwise could be merely a pantomime baddie. David Birrell plays Lord Maybourne, the Home Secretary, as very comfortably pompous and manipulating, a man who is naturally your (indeed, anyone’s) superior. And Tom McCall’s Bradshaw Cooper is a very credible portrayal of a difficult, tetchy, driven politician, the type we’d all like to punch on the nose.

EdmundWe didn’t understand why Nicholas Gerard-Martin’s Purnell was portrayed as such a terrified, jittery idiot; and what I suspect was meant to be a largely comic scene, where he is primed for his Select Committee appearance, felt to me a bit embarrassing. And Corey Montague-Sholay’s Edmund was so refined, so reserved, so delicate and private, that I feel we never really got to know him.

Bradshaw CooperI’ll be honest with you – Mrs Chrisparkle slept through at least half of the first Act and a quarter of the Second Act, which does indeed prove one thing; in waking hours, the second Act is twice as entertaining as the first. However, being bored in the theatre is the ultimate drama crime, and I can’t help but think that a play with this riveting source material and timeless relevance should have delivered a hugely greater impact. However, I always say I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success, and, given the quality of some of the performances, I have to add an extra star to what I feel this show otherwise deserves. The Whip continues in repertory at the Swan Theatre until 21st March.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Timon of Athens, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 13th December 2018

Timon of AthensExcitement stirred in my Shakespearean breast as I realised I’ve never seen a production of Timon of Athens before; and, indeed, apart from having read it as part of my degree, me and Timon have never crossed paths since. This new production by the RSC would be the perfect way to rectify this omission.

It's a partyAs far as Shakespearean tragedies go, plot-wise it’s fairly straightforward. Timon, a nobleman of Athens, gives generously to his friends, who in turn fawn on him with flattery in order to be bestowed with even more goodies. When we first meet him, he pays the debt of an unnamed, imprisoned man, so that he may go free. He makes up a dowry so his servant can marry the girl of his dreams. He buys a ghastly painting so as not to upset the talentless artist. This is Timon’s version of a happy state of order. But when the truth emerges that his money has run out, he assumes he can rely on those friends to whom he has shown such generosity, to give some of it back. One good turn deserves another, right? He sends his servants out on a mission of mercy for some cash; but all to no avail. Timon’s orderliness becomes a state of disorder. The moral of the tale? Friendships bought with gold aren’t worth a penny.

Timon is the hostess with the mostestFaced with mounting debt and no way of paying it back, he finally realises how everything he has taken for granted, and on which he has based his existence, was all a lie. With a Sweeney Todd-like Epiphany, he invites his “friends” back for one more meal where he suddenly bursts into revengeful violence, and throws scalding water over them all (they used the more visceral and easily recognised blood in this production – we don’t know whose blood it is). Turning his back on mankind, and wishing death and destruction on anyone who gets in his way, he flees for the forest. Lear-like, he camps out and survives on a more vegan lifestyle, whilst continuing his war with his fellow man. Unlike Lear, though, who allows himself to be sheltered and returned to “civilisation”, Timon remains Misanthropos and resists all opportunity to return to Athens.

Digging a holeTimon’s an odd chap in the Shakespearean universe. Hamlet, for example, is liked by his family and friends, but, in return, is rotten to almost all of them. Othello is liked by everyone except Iago, and pays them back by being rotten to everyone except Iago. Lear is liked by most of his followers and family – so he banishes them. Macbeth is universally liked and universally evil. However, Timon is basically disliked. His so-called friends have no time for him in his hour of need, even though he has always treated them with overwhelming generosity, both in gold and in spirit. So when he finds buried gold in the forest (as you do), he sees no value in it for himself; and, after using it to taunt and trick both thieves and followers, ends up giving it to his steward. After that, there’s nothing left for him to do. Perhaps it’s no surprise he’s the only Shakespearean character (I think?) to announce his own, premeditated, suicide.

Darlings!It’s definitely a game of two halves; the programme discusses that the reason might be because the play is thought to have been written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, who may have been responsible for the Athenian scenes of wealth and society. The final acts, set in the forest, have Shakespeare written all over them. It was probably written about the same time as Macbeth, but lacks that play’s dramatic intensity, basically taking one theme and doing it to death. Still, it’s fascinating to have the opportunity to see the play, and Simon Godwin’s vision for this enjoyable production dwells on the contrasts between lavish Athens and brutal forest survival.

Do you have it in gold?On arrival in the auditorium you are met with servants laying out a gracious banquet, and there’s gold as far as the eyes can see. Gold chairs, gold table, gold wall-hangings; when guests start to arrive, they are wearing gold suits, gold pyjamas, gold coats. A gold sheet is draped across the front of the painting; the jeweller teases us with some magnificent gold bling. When Kathryn Hunter’s Timon (yes, Timon is female in this production) makes an entrance in a stunning gold evening dress, you expect her to burst into a Shirley Bassey rendition of Goldfinger. Gorgeous Greek-style orchestrations from the musicians up above drift down and give you a vision of golden sunshine and golden beaches. We’re talking serious gold here. The later arrival of the creditors, all dressed in harsh, comfortless black, announces an end to the golden lifestyle, and, indeed, when Timon next appears, her golden dress has been muted to a (nevertheless still stunning) darker creation with only some little highlights of gold flashing in it. Very nice work from designer Soutra Gilmour there.

Looks like troubleThe Royal Shakespeare Company are never ones to shy away from a theatrical challenge – which is one of the things I most love about them – so this Timon has a number of roles which would traditionally be played by men, performed by women . Not only Timon herself, but the revolutionary Alcibiades, whose forces discover Timon in the forest, and Apemantus the philosopher. Flattering Lord Lucius becomes Lucia, and servant Flaminius is Flaminia. In its original version, Timon of Athens is incredibly male-oriented, so these changes create a much more realistic environment of both rich and poor lifestyles today. Another fiddle with the original text that works brilliantly well is having the three scenes where Timon’s servants chase up money from the “friends”, cut together so that they all appear on stage at once – an Alan Ayckbourn, How The Other Half Loves moment. Not only does it save time, it triples the impact.

Kathryn HunterA question I must ask myself: why have I never seen Kathryn Hunter on stage before? She’s superb. A pocket-sized dynamo who lends herself so convincingly to the opulence of those early acts and the wretchedness of the later scenes. She has an extraordinarily expressive voice, like a mix of yogurt and honey, that flows mellifluously until she peppers it with some staccato delivery that stops the audience in their tracks. She got a huge laugh for her one word: “oh!” when she first sets eyes on the ghastly painting. She had to briefly stop the show when one audience member laughed so much at her “would thou wert clean enough to spit upon” because Ms Hunter gave the line such unexpected power. A physically demanding performance, full of emotion and a fine balance between comedy and tragedy; you couldn’t take your eyes off her.

Patrick DruryThere’s great support from the fully committed cast; I particularly enjoyed Debbie Korley’s warrior-like Alcibiades and Nia Gwynne’s sarcastic Apemantus, who both put the pressure on Timon to examine herself and mend her ways. Patrick Drury’s steward Flavius hit the perfect note between obsequiousness and genuine warmth for his mistress, and there were some terrific characterisations from Anton Cross’ hapless thief, James Clyde’s self-centred Sempronius, Sagar I M Arya’s chancer of a painter and Ralph Davis’ wannabe Machiavellian poet.

Fun fun funIf you’re thinking that Timon of Athens is probably some minor work and you should save your Shakespearean pennies for better known plays, think again. This production is a feast for the eyes and the ears, and features a stand-out lead performance. It’s on at Stratford until 22nd February and I wholeheartedly recommend it!

Production photos by Simon Annand