Birmingham première for Enoch Powell speech play

Published: 21 October 2016
Reporter: Steve Orme

Divisive: Enoch Powell whose “rivers of blood” speech caused a political storm

Birmingham REP is to stage the world première of Chris Hannan’s play What Shadows which tells the story of controversial MP Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.

The REP’s artistic director Roxana Silbert who directs What Shadows said, “as we near the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s explosive speech, I’m excited to be working once again with the brilliant Ian McDiarmid.

“Powell’s provocative speech was made less than half a mile away from the REP and Chris’s powerful new play is a scorching interrogation of how a divided nation can learn to speak across the divide.”

Enoch Powell's 1968 address to the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre criticised Commonwealth immigration and anti-discrimination legislation that had been proposed in the UK.

The Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West referred to the speech as "the Birmingham speech" but it is otherwise known as the “rivers of blood” speech.

He never used the phrase but actually said, “as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

The speech caused a political storm, making Powell one of the most talked about and divisive politicians in the country, and leading to his dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet by Conservative Party leader Edward Heath.

What Shadows tells the story of the speech, bringing to life the community that inspired it and how 30 years later it affected a woman trying to make sense of her life after her childhood was shattered by the toxic situation that followed.

Ian McDiarmid plays Powell and returns to the REP after performing in Roxana Silbert’s 2014 RSC production of A Life of Galileo. He also played Shylock in the RSC production of The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida Theatre in 2014, Maximus in Ben Power’s new version of Henrik Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre in 2011 and the title role in David Eldridge’s version of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007.

Rebecca Scroggs plays Rose Cruickshank. She played Maya in The Suicide by Suhayla El-Bushra after Erdman at the National Theatre earlier in 2016.

George Costigan returns to the REP as Clem Jones, the former editor of the Express and Star and a friend of Enoch Powell. Costigan appeared in REP productions of Forests by Calixto Bieito in 2012, played George in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men in 2006 and Claudius in Bieito’s Hamlet in 2003. He was also Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at York Theatre Royal in 2008.

The cast also includes Waleed Akhtar (Saeed Mahmood), Brid Brennan (Pamela Powell), Phaldut Sharma (Sultan Mahmood) and Paula Wilcox (Marjorie Jones).

Design is by Ti Green, lighting design by Chahine Yavroyan, sound design by Giles Thomas and video design by Louis Price.

What Shadows runs in the Studio at Birmingham REP from Thursday 27 October until Saturday 12 November.