Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell. Image by Mihaela Bodlovic
What Shadows by Chris Hannan – Park Theatre, London
Like Enoch Powell himself, Chris Hannan’s new play about the man and his notorious speech comes to us from Birmingham – the Rep in the case of ‘What Shadows’, directed by Roxana Silbert. Tackling a historical pariah is a potentially fascinating assignment, but a difficult one to pull off. Can a close focus on Powell help us to understand his ignorant, unpleasant views? Despite his lasting reputation as a racist, Powell was a highly educated and respected man who drew tributes from the Prime Minister downwards when he died. So how did he become a rabble-rouser, remembered only for stepping outside the boundaries of civilised political discourse?
What Shadows has weakness, but also some very strong points. The action centres around Powell, his wife and two close friends, as he builds up to his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, delivered Birmingham in 1968. This is counterpointed with a story involving two fictional female academics, one black and the other white, who meet again after falling out over race in the 1990s. One has retreated to a remote Scottish farm, while the other has apparent success but a drink problem, and only a meeting with the by-now aging Powell can deal with questions left unanswered. Unfortunately, no aspect of this storyline seems at all convincing and the two seem to be devices for interrogating the impact of Powell’s rhetoric 25 years on. There are several other narrative elements, including an Indian man, Sultan (Ameet Chana) now living in Wolverhampton, who fought with Powell in the war, and his touching connection with a white war widow. There is a great deal going on, and much of remains fragmentary and therefore instrumental.
However, the play’s strength is the main narrative and Ian McDiarmid’s performance as Powell. His performance is subtle and fascinating, of the highest quality. He eerily reproduced the Black Country tones of a man who, despite appearing an insider, never seems to have felt he belonged. His relationship with close Quaker friend Clem and his wife, torn apart by the speech, is loving rendered with fine work from Nicholas Le Prevost as Clem and Paula Wilcox as Marjorie, with Joanne Pearce as Pamela Powell. At the centre of the play, the delivery of the notorious speech is compelling and illuminating. Hannan suggests that Powell’s projected his sense of personal rejection into a national crisis, and the full text of the speech supports this theory. Powell reports his constituents’ fury about declining services, but placing the blame for this on immigrants, never mind people of a different colour, seems to be his own interpretation. His own discontent seems to have combined with his ego to produce a disastrous political explosion. While ‘What Shadows’ is flawed, the chance to see McDiarmid becoming Powell, but in middle-age, and in old age suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, is one not to be missed.