Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
From 07 September 2017 to 23 September 2017
Review by Graeme Strachan
It would be hard to say that What Shadows is anything but a timely production to spring onto the British stage world. With the world currently trying to find a sure footing in a post-Brexit, post-Trump and post-truth time, a play about the nature of identity, racism, national sentiment and the need to be understood could barely be more apt.
It's something of a masterstroke then that he chose to pin the piece to that landmark moment of similar existential socio-political upheaval: to Enoch Powell's 1968 address to the Birmingham Conservative Political Centre.
His now infamous Rivers of Blood speech, so called because it included a line from Virgil's Aeneid mentioning the river Tiber "teeming with much blood", was seen as a major factor in spurring up the already heavy anti-immigration sentiment of the time, while Powell was accused by some of giving credibility to racist ideas. Indeed, the parallels this holds with the recent politics and national sentiments both in the UK and abroad need hardly be elaborated upon, suffice to say that this hot iron has indeed been struck.
The speech itself, delivered in full by Ian McDiarmid who plays Powell, acts as the centrepiece of the play, with much of the build-up to that point focusing on Powell and his wife Pamela's interactions with family friends John Clement "Clem" Jones (Nicholas Le Provost) and his spouse Marjorie (Paula Wilcox). As in real life, the relationship between Powell and Jones, the then editor of the Express & Star, breaks down after the speech, and the play spends a good deal of time building up that relationship and showing the fractures build between the two couples.
However, the piece is split chronologically with a framing story running in 1992 where Rose, a fiesty and committed black academic, has sought out Sofia, the Oxford don she helped get the sack years ago. Amelia Donkor plays Rose with a proud bearing of someone who stands unshakeably confident in her righteousness, striking out against the structural racism she sees around her, while magnanimously opening the door to a collaboration with the older academic.
Joanna Pearce's performance as Sofia neatly counters that of Rose, with a world-weary pragmatism and a self-acceptance that the other lacks. Their journey to explore the basis of the speech and the people involved in a quest to understand identity acts as springboard to address some of the many, many issues the play touches upon.
In fact, the play touches on rather too much, as it crams in vying storylines of the Powells and Joneses, the two academics' fact-finding search, Rose's relationship with her own racist Bajan mother and the additional stories of the white war widow mentioned in Powell's speech and her various ethnicly diverse and equally diversly prejudiced tenants. This leads to a somewhat busy production, which throws a lot at the audience and, while building an intriguing picture, seems to drop a lot of the threads without any real closure.
Special mention must be made to Ian McDiarmid, whose performance as Enoch Powell is legitimately uncanny in its accuracy, chewing through the vowels of his educated Midlands accent with a measured and particular emphasis and pause. It's ultimately his performance upon which the rest of the production must sit, and he brings an unexpectedly human complexity to a larger than life character who could easily slide into caricature or be wilful leapt into lazy villainy.
Instead he comes across as spry and genial, if somewhat snooty, but with a wistful sadness about him. As Clem Jones remarks to him that the England he loves is "not so much a place as a grief", it's hard to see a better summation of the character in a single line, yet McDiarmid carries him with a pride that forces the audience to grudgingly respect Powell's vigour, if little else. Even in the latter part of the play, he plays him as a stumbling elder, wracked with Parkinson's Disease, yet with a dignity that defies his condition and a deep and self-righteous anger welling within him.
The rest of the cast aquit themselves well, but in small ways suffer variously from the top-heavy writing and the unfocused nature of much of the surrounding narrative.
It's a fascinating play and an incredibly pertinent topic to cover, painting a picture of a multicultural vision of the UK that still struggles with its broken and unbalanced attitudes towards race, religion, identity and self, but one that leaves the audience, much like Powell and Rose, each knowingly lost in their own hypocrisies and unable to every truly find a common ground between themselves other than a tacit agreement to disagree.