Katherine Pearce on playing Horatia

Whisper #149

The actor talks about how her character rises above the stereotype of the maid.

Do you remember Upstairs Downstairs?
The many seasons of Downton Abbey, or The Favourite
Seen or read any Chekhov? Shakespeare? How about a nice, good, clean bit of farce?

Something, or rather, someone, links all of these things together: the Maid. She's as perennial a fixture as the young lovers, the vengeful bastard and the evil stepmother. Oftentimes, she's not called Maid, but Nurse, or something similar. Sometimes, if she's lucky, she even has her own name to go by.

You might also find that she comes augmented with a regional accent - perhaps a dour Northern, a lilting Irish or a dulcet West Country. Writers for centuries have deployed her as a weapon of mass distraction/exposition, as they see fit. I am glad to say you won't see that here in The Whip

A woman sits cross-legged on a wooden crate.
Katherine Pearce.
Photo by Lucy Barriball © RSC Browse and license our images

Who is the maid?

I've played a few maids in my time. Clumsy, ditzy, dotty, loyal, dutiful, abashed, bawdy, rosy, gritty, keen, funny. But never...intelligent. Instinctive. Driven. Passionate. Resourceful. No, no, this is not the stomping ground of the Maid, these rich words, these descriptors of privilege. These have traditionally been reserved for the owners of the house in each respective story. 

Except for this current 'maid' I find myself researching, rehearsing and getting to know. On the surface, her story shares so much with those cardboard-cutout bodice 'n' bonnet donners, who 'ooer missus' their way through our screens. Born of working-class stock in Blackburn in 1812, hers is a life of work. Cotton mills. Spinning machines. Dirt. Fumes. Danger. 

But scratch a little closer at the character Juliet Gilkes Romero has sculpted, and you start to see something beyond the well-trodden path of hard knocks. As a working class Newton-le-Willows lass, I've lived with the stigma of my accent, my hometown and the idea that a broad northern accent equals poor - and poor equals stupid. So I relished getting to know a character like Horatia, who manoeuvres through the barriers in front of her with skill and awareness that most of the politicians in the play would be proud of. Driven by huge loss and tragic injustice, she is proof on the page that given the right balance of passion, pragmatism, confidence and timing, we can all speak truth to power.

An instinctive understanding

Her journey is one my great and great-great grandmothers would have experienced. One of the UK's largest coal mines (of course, long closed) is a five-minute drive from my family home. I have spent periods of my life on Universal Credit. All of these things, these conflicts, this low-level hum of injustices within me, seem to vibrate at the same frequency as Horatia, and The Whip. It was easy for me to understand the madness of inequality and the pain felt by her on an instinctive level. 

'It's just a bloody play!' I hear you cry from behind a Pinot in the Dirty Duck. True enough, true enough. But I really believe theatres can be springboards for discussion and The Whip has a timeless message to extol. 

And if you have the time and inclination, and want to get an insight into reading materials inside the rehearsal room, I dipped into these wonderful books: Black and British by David Olusoga, Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch, Natives by Akala, The Condition of the Working Class in England by Engels and Chavs by Owen Jones. 

Anyway, I have to cut this short, as I'm renting this soapbox by the word - it's all I could afford on a Maid's wages. Thanks for reading. Enjoy the show.

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