So what does it mean to be English? It’s a question which, unsurprisingly, has recently been dragged into the limelight. For some it’s the dew-laden grass one winter’s morning, for others it can be a crumbled Empire. In such a diverse nation, identity can be lost for many. What Shadows takes us back to post-war Britain, and to Enoch Powell’s infamous speech regarding Commonwealth immigration. Moving between time periods, playwright Chris Hannan gives an account of Powell and his speech’s impact and “warnings”.
Questions of identity are ever present, most subtly reflected in remarks about missing lapwings – older generations cry that things have changed, the native birds have flown and been “replaced”. The changing English countryside is paralleled by Ti Green’s naked set design of bare trees. For where is one’s identity? Is it located in the land where one lives, the people one shares it with or the customs present? All of these are superficially asked by What Shadows, but are left for the audience to answer.
Ian McDiarmid’s Powell is a masterpiece. This isn’t simply performance, this is transformation. He conjures up a storm which, when required, commands attention and gives us an insight into why, with the right form of communication, so many men spouting hatred can garner an audience. But ruptures in his vocal patterns, strained, breaking, give us the man behind the storm. Despite Powell’s notoriety, McDiarmid never plays him as an out and out antagonist. There are complexities, layers and even humour to the man behind the words.
Our accompanying cast is touched with brush strokes of genius, particularly Joanne Pearce and Nicholes Le Prevost. Pearce is the delightfully droll Pamela, Powell’s wife and the epitome of the Tory middle class. Her place within the narrative could be furthered, but her delivery is witty and endearing. Matching Powell’s wit, Prevost plays the notable part of Clem Jones, once a friend to Powell, one whose journalistic experience helps broaden Powell’s reach. With Jones a self-confessed liberal, Prevost encapsulates the struggle of balancing friendship, career and politics. Scenes of the two interacting are small slices of history with tangible tension.
Amelia Donkor, however, seems lost in her interpretation of Rose, a young daughter of immigrants, who has grown into a history lecturer intent on meeting Enoch. Regrettably she fails to sink into the flesh of the script. The end-game, the build up of an interview with Powell allows Donkor redemption, although the scene is heavily carried by McDiarmid.
Laughter conceals unease. It’s our basic defence against the uncomfortable. Many laughed at Farage, while even more laughed at Trump. Yet we know how these tales ended. Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, for many, was laughable. Yet it bore supporters, many of them. Hannan utilises humour for natural conversation, free flowing but welcomed amidst the heaviness.
Powell’s epitaph shall always be his Birmingham Speech, for the growing resentment it may have helped uncork, and, tragically, the modern usage of his “warnings” on immigration. What Shadows grazes the surface of those ideologies we keep locked in the shade, yet it never comments too heavily on any issue. Instead, it draws the essence of Powell out, robust even in death, never seeking sympathy.