Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – until 23 September 2017
Park Theatre, London – 27 September-28 October 2017
Reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is a delicate romanticism to What Shadows that is at odds with its subject matter. An excellent central performance and high production values cannot quite overcome some problematic elements.Chris Hannan’s play is presented by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where it was first staged. It features Ian McDiarmid, the versatile Scottish actor probably best known for Star Wars, as Enoch Powell.
Powell was the Conservative (and later Ulster Unionist) MP most famous for what is best known as the ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968. While not actually using that phrase, the speech does make reference to the River Tiber foaming with blood, mixed in with other classical allusions, anecdotes, and racist rabble-rousing. It made him a hate figure to many and the idol of those who thought Alf Garnett was a real person.
It also torpedoed what he at least believed to be a glittering political career, as well as making considered debate on immigration impossible for years to come.
Strange to relate, then, that this play is not an overtly angry or openly political one, focusing instead on Powell’s motivations and the effects his actions had on those around him. Indeed, Powell is by far the most fully fleshed out character here. This is helped immensely by McDiarmid’s extremely fine performance – resentful, fidgety and frustrated, either from feeling overlooked earlier in life or from illness later on.
Unfortunately, the other characters are less successfully drawn. Amelia Donkor tries hard to give Rose Cruickshank, the Oxford academic who confronts Powell, independent life, but the character never really takes flight.
At least Cruickshank has a convincing, if somewhat convenient, back story. Many of the other characters are little more than ciphers, seemingly included to add to the discussions about identity and belonging. Even those people drawn from life, such as local newspaper editor and Powell’s erstwhile friend Clem Jones (the reliable Nicholas Le Prevost), have a strange flatness and a fine cast struggles to elevate them above stereotypes.
This is, after all, Powell’s show. McDiarmid embodies him completely, down to the pinched voice, patronising yet almost regretful. This, allied to telling details like his reluctance to get his hair wet, or his regret at not dying in the war, does manage to elevate him from bogeyman status.
This has its own drawbacks. There are undoubtedly plenty of people who have a romantic attachment to a half-remembered, half-imagined idea of Englishness. We should not pretend that the Scottish version is not at least as common, and it is not in itself a cause of division or hatred.
However much the play tries to rehumanise Powell, or present him as a thoughtful, educated man who is definitely not a racist, the effect is almost the opposite. It simply brings the speech, and his reasons for making it, into sharper focus. Forming the centrepiece of the play, it remains as stark and disgusting as it ever was. At least its inclusion blows any possibility of this play rehabilitating Powell’s reputation out of the water.
Focusing so clearly on Powell, the play seems sure to give an answer as to why someone so supposedly intelligent, and so self-avowedly self-knowing, would do something so irresponsible. And the only answer seems to be – to publicise himself and annoy Edward Heath.
Even making every possible allowance, it was at best a piece of nakedly opportunistic troublemaking born out of thwarted ambition. At any rate, to stir up hatred in a speech full of scaremongering, exaggerations, quarter-truths and racist epithets (and later seeking to excuse them by the old ‘but I was quoting someone else’ line) and then claim to have ‘foreseen’ the trouble you cause is not proof of any powers of precognition.
There are undoubtedly figures on both sides of the Atlantic who use similar tactics now. Some of them also benefit, as Powell did, from the peculiar belief that the ability to spout classical history automatically gives politicians something worthwhile to say about contemporary events.
This could have been a vital and timely comment on notions of national identity. It never quite gets that far, but there is still much to admire.
Hannan’s script has a great deal of interest in it, although it is overlong. Roxana Silbert’s direction is limpid and expressive, while Ti Green’s sylvan set – combined with Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting, Giles Thomas’s sound and Louis Price’s video design – conjures up a world reminiscent of the Shropshire of A.E. Housman that Powell so admired.
But it should be remembered that Housman’s depiction of the English countryside as a place of grief and disappointment was in itself a construct, and living your life by it is probably not a good idea.
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Thursday 7 – Saturday 23 September 2017
Tues – Sat at 7.30 pm, Matinee Wed & Sat at 2.00 pm
Tickets and details at: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/what-shadows
Following its Lyceum run, What Shadows tours to London:
PARK200, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP
Wednesday 27 September – Saturday 28 October 2017
Evenings, Tue-Sat: 7.30pm.
Matinees, Thurs, Sat: 3pm.
Tickets and details: www.parktheatre.co.uk
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