Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Theatre review: What Shadows

I can’t wait until a time when I can go months without seeing a play about a dark chapter in history, and finding it painfully relevant to the present day. We’re not there yet though, and so Roxana Silbert transfers her Birmingham production of What Shadows to the Park Theatre, in which playwright Chris Hannan looks at one of the most notorious instances of a British politician fanning racism. After decades playing Emperor Palpatine Ian McDiarmid is about as qualified as you can get to play Enoch Powell, the Conservative politician whose hate-filled “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham made him a by-word for racism. In 1967, with the Tories in opposition, Powell starts to see himself on the one hand as the man to get them into power, and on the other marginalised by his own party, who view him as a crank who gives shit-stirring populist speeches to regional Conservative clubs.

He asks his oldest friend, the comparatively liberal newspaper editor Clem Jones (Nicholas Le Prevost,) for advice on how to attract the most press attention to his speeches and applies it to his most deliberately controversy-baiting one – at the expense of his friendship, and with far-reaching effects on people across the country.


The first act spends half its time in 1967-8, with Powell preparing for his speech, as well as with the “war widow” he uses as an example in it, Grace (Paula Wilcox,) who ironically goes on to have a happy second marriage with a Muslim immigrant for thirty years. The other half of the scenes take place in 1992, with another person mentioned in the speech: Rose (Amelia Donkor) was one of the black children accused of terrorising Grace, and is now a celebrated historian. She teams up with fellow academic Sofia (Joanne Pearce,) in disgrace after comments that appeared to sympathise with Powell, to write a book on English identity that will particularly investigate the effects of his most famous speech.


McDiarmid is always an impressive performer and the reason I was attracted to a play with an otherwise unappealing subject matter. He doesn’t disappoint, giving some depth to a historical figure known for only one thing, but without letting him off the hook. Powell emerges as an enigma, who voted in favour of decriminalising homosexuality and respects the Indian regiments who fought alongside him in the War, but whose hatred of the latest wave of immigrants does seem to be genuine, as well as a cynical way of currying favour with the working classes. The play is good on looking at how people justify inciting racism by passing the buck – Powell’s excuse is that he’s just directly quoting working-class people (he’s eventually confronted with the fact that quoting only particularly ill-informed ones was a choice he didn’t have to make,) but having an MP say all of it in public legitimised it to those people looking for an excuse, creating a very convenient vicious circle. And of course, it was very easy for Powell to be right about the rivers of blood – predicting racially-motivated violence in a speech that incites it is the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Hannan juggles a number of themes well in the first act, so it’s a shame it comes apart a bit in the second, which takes place entirely in 1992. The play’s theme of identity starts to get far too baldly discussed by Rose and Sofia,* coming a bit too close to a lecture. Having overcome her initial prejudices, the elderly Grace’s dementia sees her revert to her earlier racism, not recognising her husband Sultan (Ameet Chana) and hurling abuse at him – it’s a heartbreaking concept that could form the basis of a play in its own right, and feels underexplored here. And the play builds to a confrontation as Rose interviews Powell, but the former is drawn as too one-dimensionally angry (and resolutely opposed to learning from her mistakes,) and Donkor has little chance of making an impact opposite McDiarmid’s quiet fireworks. It’s a shame the play runs too long and doesn’t live up to its subtly effective first half, but the overall impression is still of a powerful story with a lot to teach the present day.

What Shadows by Chris Hannan is booking until the 28th of October at Park Theatre 200.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

*they really needed to get two women called Blanche and Dorothy to help them with the book as well

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