Towards the end of the swinging 60s, in Birmingham in 1968, a local Member of Parliament gave a speech, which caused a storm that echoes to this day. After all, the debate of Englishness is still ongoing and still divisive. Nationalism and cultural identity are the hot potatoes of sociology, particularly given global events the past few years. Enoch Powell was a controversial character; his “Rivers of Blood” speech was arguably the most controversial speech of post-war Britain. Powell was demoted from the Conservative shadow cabinet and notoriety followed him to the grave in 1998. Almost the entire shocking text is delivered chillingly by Ian McDiarmid at the close of the first half.
In What Shadows, Hannan has chosen two time frames; a 1968 one leading to the speech and its immediate aftermath and a 1992 one, when Rose an Oxford academic recruits former don and rival Sophia to research with her and co-author a book on English identity. In the final scene Rose does get her chance to interview an aged and ailing Powell. Frequent flash backs to the late 60s give us insight to some of the evens that shaped the characters. He – according to Hannan’s dramatization – is enchanted by the romantic Englishness of Shropshire and Warwickshire and frustrated with the silence on immigration of the Tory leadership in particular and the political establishment in general. Rose is growing up in Wolverhampton – Powell’s constituency – the daughter of a guesthouse owner occupied exclusively by immigrants, the embarrassingly dark skinned daughter of a proudly mixed-race Barbadian mother.
The play is stuffed with characters and notions roughly sketched by a mosaic of characters: A white woman – mentioned in the speech – who said she was yelled at and spat at by black children in her street. Two Pakistani men, who have immigrated recently to the U.K. and are trying to build careers and families. A white Quaker couple friends of Powell’s, who break with him after the speech. A former Oxford don, previously considered the smartest woman in England now disgraced and living in a provincial backwater. They all are the vehicle that frames the questions explored in the play: what shapes our identity; how attached to or flexible are we with it; do we recognise and how do we handle our ingrained biases and prejudices; and more importantly in this current climate how do we bridge the divide and talk to the “enemy”.
Hannan’s text and Ian McDiarmid acting brilliance deliver a nuanced dramatization of Powell. He is complex, smart, and erudite; his atavism and ambition are evident as well as his steely belief in himself and in his purpose. An unwavering man, who commands the stage and doesn’t vie for sympathy. His is also the character more clearly and consistently developed. Rose, his main antagonist ends up a cliché – fiery liberal, an activist, suicidal and possibly alcoholic with unresolved family issues, and an improbably uncomfortable secret. A character saddled with too many roles that stifle it. George Costigan as a liberal journalist and Bríd Brennan as both Powell’s wife and Rose’s research collaborator balance excellently the main characters. The rest of the actors inhabit their roles with ease but the text itself has cast them just as simple tesserae in the ever-changing mosaic of England. And it is also this constant attempt to define specifically Englishness, which could to a lesser extend limit its appeal to a wider British or international audience.
The play takes its title from Edmund Burke’s line “What shadows we are and what shadows we pursue” but is much better at highlighting the contradictions of Powell than those of the surrounding culture. It still is a thought-provoking play that documents without sensationalising an issue that resonates, complemented by excellent acting and an elegant and understated production. Definitely worth the time and effort to watch.