What Shadows is gloriously raw, one of those productions with such a good script that it doesn’t need to be, and isn’t, embellished with superfluous sound effects in an attempt to create a dramatic atmosphere. Much of it is well performed, with an uncluttered set that makes good use of video projections. The flitting between the decades – scenes are set in either 1967/68 or 1992 – made things a tad more complex than was strictly necessary.
Enoch Powell (Ian McDiarmid), who retains a reputation in the public eye for his so-called ‘rivers of blood’ speech (those exact words are not in the said speech), is presented as a figure who has thought through his lines of argument. A truncated version of the speech is given in the play, giving audiences a feel for the most salient points. I thought this was a good way to dramatise it, not getting bogged down in the details whilst providing a deep enough introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the speech’s content. Later, when Powell is interviewed as an elderly man by Rose Cruickshank (Amelia Donkor), an Oxbridge academic, his intellectual ability is still evident.
That doesn’t make his views any less abhorrent, or otherwise simply bizarre. There’s a decent attempt at examining the aftermath of what Powell refers to as “the Birmingham speech”, particularly in the personal circumstances of Grace Hughes (Paula Wilcox). No play could look at every effect and consequence arising from a speech that labelled immigration as “ludicrous” and “dangerous”, and the focus on just a few personal stories makes the play more compelling than a macro-level overview of, say, continuing opposition to multiculturalism, would.
A rather obvious danger exists in giving Powell a platform on the Park Theatre stage, and concerns about even staging a show of this nature have, admittedly, some validity. But, as a production, What Shadows has much going for it. McDiarmid is convincingly Powell through and through – the nasal manner of speaking, an unashamed admission of political career ambitions (dashed by the Birmingham speech), and a commitment to abide by his principles even if it meant losing long-standing friendships with his Quaker friend Clem Jones (Nicholas Le Prevost) and Clem’s wife Marjorie (also Paula Wilcox). A portrayal of Powell suffering from Parkinson’s disease in his retirement does not, perhaps expectedly, evoke much sympathy, but McDiarmid’s Powell would, I suspect, have been uncomfortable with affection in any event.
Powell isn’t the only one in the play given full character development: Rose Cruickshank has a few skeletons in the cupboard, one of which stretches back to her childhood. Sofia (Joanne Pearce), a former academic whose career was left in tatters after she asserted Powell’s Birmingham speech “had never been answered”, whatever that means, has much to add to proceedings even as a relatively minor character. But I’m not quite convinced, for instance, the oh-so-slightly prejudiced Grace would have married Sultan (Ameet Chana), a self-confessed “educated” man from Jhelum, in Pakistan.
A complicated, provocative and uncomfortable play, it is not always easy to watch. But there are themes and topics of discussion that remain relevant, almost five decades after that belligerent speech.
Review by Chris Omaweng
“I was a storm. I was also a man entirely alone in a storm. There were forces beyond my control and I was one of them.”
Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech was the most polarising political speech of the last 50 years.
Oxford academic and daughter of a Caribbean immigrant, Rose Cruickshank wants answers. Enoch’s controversial words about immigration shattered her childhood. Rose cannot find inner peace until she understands what led him to make the speech that defined a generation. Will a meeting with the man himself give her the answers she desperately craves?
Roxana Silbert (Artistic Director, Birmingham Repertory Theatre), directs Ian McDiarmid (The Star Wars films, Merchant of Venice, Life of Galileo) as one of the most provocative figures in recent history.
Oliver Mackwood and Charles Diamond in association with Park Theatre present The Birmingham Repertory Theatre production of
By Chris Hannan
Directed by Roxana Silbert
Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell
Nicholas Le Prevost as Clem Jones
Amelia Donkor as Rose Cruickshank & Joyce Cruickshank
Paula Wilcox as Grace Hughes & Marjorie Jones
Waleed Akhtar as Saeed
Ameet Chana as Sultan & Doctor Sharma
Joanne Pearce as Sofia & Pamela
Roxana Silbert Director
Ti Green Designer
Chahine Yavroyan Lighting Designer
Giles Thomas Original Sound Design
Louis Price Video Designer
Anna Morrissey Movement Director
Stephen Kemble Voice & Dialect Coach
Luke Kernaghan Associate Director
Plays: 27 Sep – 28 Oct 2017