There is something incredibly chilling about seeing Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech performed in its entirety as part of What Shadows. The speech, in which Powell told of his sense of ‘foreboding’ about the impacts of mass immigration – a bleak picture of race riots and civil unrest – framed the British immigration debate in deeply divisive terms. We are still living with its impacts now.
Chris Hannan’s writing presents us with a paradoxical Enoch. There is a chance meeting with a young, gay, Asian character who thanks Powell for voting in Parliament to allow homosexual relations between consenting adults. We are in 1967. Powell alludes to the ‘love of man for man’ in ancient Greece in his response, and states that ‘as a Tory’; he believes a person’s affections are their own to dispose of. Whether he’d take a similarly progressive view of a interracial relationship is obviously a different question entirely.
No stone is left unturned in exploring Powell’s motivations, and as we move to the 90s, it is a black Oxford academic, Rose Cruickshank (Amelia Donkor), who confronts him on the legacy created by ‘Rivers of Blood’. Rose and her academic partner Sofia (Joanne Pearce) have recently regrouped in order to write a book about identity. They are trying to find a common language for discussing it; one which can ultimately unify. The play periodically returns to the question: ‘who are we?’
Hannan has created a fascinating character in Powell (Ian McDiarmid), whose racism and fear was bound up up in a rarefied and romanticised vision of England. This was a man who claimed to be at one with the white working classes, but could barely get though a conversation without quoting Thucydides. The way he leverages his friendship with lefty editor Clem (Nicholas Le Provost) for his own political ends, and the impact it then has, is artfully constructed.
Other aspects work less well. Some of the social-historical context-setting scenes are flat, and Rose is slightly baffling as an antagonist. She is certainly not afforded the same three-dimensional characterisation that Powell is. If you are going to create a fully formed character of this complexity though, hand it over to Ian McDiarmid. He plays the full gamut here: taciturn, shrewd, ardent, delusional. Hannan wrote a part with genuine emotional range, and McDiarmid is utterly convincing. Especially in the portrayal of rampant ego and the desire to wield it through words: ‘You know when you’re articulating the feelings of the whole people of England. It’s what Winston did in the war.’
There is much in What Shadows that shocks – not least the awesome and enduring power of language itself.
Reviewed by April Delaney
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic