Park Theatre 27 September – 28 October. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
A play revolving around Enoch Powell and his controversial and divisive 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech may not instantly appeal, but Chris Hannan’s What Shadows takes an intelligent and unsentimental look at immigration and identity, throwing in a fair few laughs along the way.
Powell’s speech mentioned the last white woman living in a street in Wolverhampton, and uses grotesque language to describe the black children on the street. One of those children, Rose, grows up to be an Oxford academic, and in 1992 begins to research a book about identity with Sofia, the woman she replaced on the faculty. Sofia controversially stated that Powell’s speech had never been answered, and was hounded out of academia for her racist views. The two women travel to Wolverhampton to interview the 1968 inhabitants of Rose’s street before Rose interviews Powell himself.
Interwoven with the women’s plot is the story of Powell and his Quaker friends before and after the speech. Clem is a newspaper editor and reluctantly gives Powell advice on when to stage a speech for maximum press impact, even though he finds Powell’s views repellent.
Ian McDiarmid is so utterly convincing as Powell, nailing the bizarrely nasal accent, that I wanted to throw my shoe at him as he delivered (an abridged version) of the speech. His portrayal of Powell’s Parkinson’s tremors was finely nuanced, developing a little sympathy for the man, until he opened his mouth again. McDiarmid conveys Powell’s sharp wit, revelling in some of the best one liners in the play. Hannan’s version of Powell is a petulant, entitled and frustrated man who delights at being a grammar school boy amongst the more privileged Tories and remains full of bitterness at having his dreams of governing India taken from him. He has developed a poetic, idealised vision of England that is threatened by immigration and multiculturalism, and is willing to risk his political career to air views he feels all English people share. He also risks his friendship with Clem and Marjorie, and this relationship is written beautifully, full of meaningless meandering conversations, peppered with some of the Powells’ racist views that the Jones’ gloss over to avoid confrontation.
Sofia’s claim that everyone is racist, that all groups look down on others, is met with scorn by Rose, but as her mother and her neighbours are seen in the 60s, this truth becomes obvious. The scenes and characters are slightly reminiscent of the abuse the students threw at each other in that 70s classic Mind Your Language, with everyone accepting the derogatory terms as everyday language. Sultan determinedly wooing white war widow Grace is a delight, and makes their final scene together in 1992 very moving. The loss of identity is shattering for both, and this constant search for identity and a sense of belonging is relevant to all the characters.
The relationship between the two academics is interesting, but as Sofia gradually opens up and becomes the humane voice of reason of the play, Rose just becomes more and more smug and stubborn. Her meeting with Powell descends into her berating him, and their inability to resolve their opposing views could feel a little unsatisfactory to some, but is totally in keeping with society’s lack of solutions in this digital age when anonymous keyboard warriors constantly spout hatred and bigotry through social media, and world leaders cynically incite fear and intolerance to enhance their powerbase.
This is a play about the power of words to divide and incite, so director Roxana Silbert focusses the audience’s attention on the stellar cast and the script with unfussy movement and a bare stage, with a few stark trees.
What Shadows isn’t an easy play to watch at times, but the relevance and intelligence of Hannan’s writing, along with the chance to see the incomparable Ian McDiarmid in the flesh, make it well worth a look.