In Douglas Maxwell’s latest play, a stylish living room turns into a hostile battleground as a happy family’s façade falls and lies are exposed. The Whip Hand is a powerful modern tale – one that examines the importance of taking responsibility for past actions, recognising privilege and admitting the darker side of history.
Dougie’s request to his ex-wife, Arlene, and daughter, Molly, is certainly an unusual one. Discovering that a distant relative was once a slave-master, Dougie is determined to give something back to those hard-done by, at the expense of his loved ones. This idea of reparation – of paying for the actions of others – opens up a fierce debate about who should take responsibility.
Jonathan Watson is outstanding as Dougie. A famous funny-man thanks to his TV show Only an Excuse?, he expertly commands the script, using every opportunity to be humorous. Yet, Watson also proves himself to be more than capable of serious dramatic acting. The wonderful empathy Dougie shows for those wronged by his ancestors – his desire to do something right – easily convinces the audience that he is the one in the right. His speech about the brutality children faced on slave ships – the harrowing nature of the suffering under the whip – leaves the audience and Dougie’s family speechless. The vulnerability he expresses – his struggle to be taken seriously, to even articulate what he wants to achieve – makes him a deeply sympathetic character.
So, it is an absolute betrayal when we realise that Dougie too is not as innocent and dim-witted as he seems. As the play progresses, The Whip Hand becomes less about responsibility and more about the desire for power, to be the one in control. Truly, every time an actor takes centre-stage, they command the action and maintain the stifling atmosphere. A special mention has to go to Joanne Thomson and Michael Abubakar, both fantastic in their roes. Together, they add another layer to the moral argument at hand, offering new perspectives from the younger generation. They are the innocent ones who suffer the most, having to accept the actions of those they have looked up to for so long.
The Whip Hand is so carefully constructed that Maxwell is forever keeping the audience on their toes. Indeed, this drama is startlingly complex at times, frequently giving us a false sense of security – and honesty – within this already-hostile atmosphere. Admittedly, the suspense Maxwell attempts to create can feel stretched at times, and extracting the true nature of the situation is as painstakingly difficult as Arlene trying to make sense of Dougie’s intentions. Nevertheless, The Whip Hand eventually reaches its explosive climax, leaving the actors and audience breathless.
The Whip Hand
Until 27th August
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge