Actor Richard Clothier talks about his character in The Whip and the politicians who have informed his performance.

I can’t remember a time when the role of the Whip has been so prominent, both politically and publicly, as it has since our decision to leave the European Union in 2016. The internecine actions of both our main political parties have clearly been a nightmare for those charged with orchestrating, cajoling and bullying party members to maintain discipline along party lines. Toward the end of 2019, watching the House of Commons repeatedly vote down bill after bill became a gruesomely fascinating political car crash which would have been a delight had the stakes not been so high.

The world of the Whip

In 1833, when our play is set, political discipline was patchy and although parliamentary allegiances were loosely drawn along party lines, quite often members would seek solidarity from those with whom they shared personal rather than political interests, i.e. those who owned mills, factories and plantations. As a huge number of people were disenfranchised (women and anyone earning less than £10 a year), politicians didn’t need to be overly concerned with broader social issues.

A man in a shirt and cardigan sits pensively on a wooden crate.
Richard Clothier as Alexander Boyd.
Photo by Lucy Barriball © RSC Browse and license our images

The character that I play and writer Juliet created, Whig Party Chief Whip Lord Boyd, is charged with introducing and sponsoring a bill to bring about an end to colonial slavery. Boyd believes the task may be possible until he realises just how many influential members of parliament are themselves slaveholders.

First responses

It is always interesting when you first read a script to be aware of your initial response to a character. The unconscious connections that are made are often surprising and unexpected. When first reading The Whip I found myself thinking about Tony Blair until, in later discussion with Juliet and Director Kim, they pointed me in the direction of Andy Bearpark.

Bearpark's rise from junior civil servant to being Margaret Thatcher's most trusted aide was meteoric. A sharp political operator, he had considerable influence in shaping Conservative Party policy. He continued as her Chief of Staff after Thatcher lost the leadership contest to John Major and cites the ill-fated attempt to force through the Community Charge (poll tax) as the reason for her downfall. He was also the most senior figure to be posted to Baghdad after the Blair government's hugely unpopular decision to follow the Americans into the Iraq war. His subsequent misgivings and coruscating assessment of those responsible are widely available online.

So while my initial response to the script and the dilemma that Boyd finds himself in suggested Blair, the political mover and shaker who has most informed my view of Boyd has been Bearpark.

In rehearsal

We are now about three weeks out from our first performance and the rehearsal room is crackling with excitement and anticipation. I think it would be fair to say we all feel very blessed to have the opportunity to share this wonderful, moving and, perhaps most surprisingly, funny piece of work with you.

PS Bearpark is now a yoga teacher in a small town in New Zealand...

Read Debbie Korley's blog about playing Mercy

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