Park Theatre, London (***)
`Rivers of blood’, as Enoch Powell’s Birmingham speech in 1968 about immigration was famously dubbed. Except he never really said that. Like so much else we call history, it was a moniker adopted by the press out of an illusion the politician, fond of quoting from classic scholars made: `like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ Yanked out of context, it stuck.
Chris Hannan’s What Shadows looks back at that speech and ponders at the man behind it, its implications now and how we can come to terms with those whose views we cannnot tolerate.
Immigration is its over-riding theme, touching on the very issue that divided this nation in June 2016 which has caused the biggest rift possibly since the Civil War.
How does one come to terms with the enemy and not only come to terms but live with them? the terrorist at the gate, the fundamentalist at the door, the immigrant changing the nature of your street, your school, your community. Indeed, what is Englishness? What makes up `being English’, belonging?
And then, asks Hannan, the crucial question. What happens to your identity, your sense of yourself?
Latching onto some horribly resonant sentiments voiced by our latter day Powells, Hannan has rightly identified, in Powell’s mouth, his recognition of the white working class who felt left behind, discarded and alienated by politicians. Powell, as now, gave voice he said to their feelings. He put a mirror up to the country, Hannan has him saying at one point.
These are big, powerful themes But resonant and prescient as Powell was and as Hannan conceives him, What Shadows comes over as a strangely bifurcated, split kind of play.
Alongside his story – and one charting his friendship with friend and editor of the local paper (the Wolverhampton Express and Star), Clem Jones – Hannan injects a strangely implausible account of two female academics, one black, one white, endeavouring to find a way to overcome their mutual animosity.
Hannan who has written some of the most acclaimed plays of the past three decades with Elizabeth Gordon Quinn, The Evil Doers not to mention a riotous satire on belief and love, The God of Soho at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2011, is in rather more sombre mood here although Ian McDiarmid (in fine form) does all he can to inject mischievousness into the wily, sentimental, messianic Powell.
And while Hannan’s white Oxbridge academic, Sofia is played with gusto and elemental power by the redoubtable Joanne Pearce (and Powell’s ultra-Tory wife, Pamela), her conversations with Amelia Donkor’s younger Rose Cruickshank (who also plays her mother and first generation immigrant Joyce Cruickshank) fall into a strained kind of abstraction or even cod psycho-babble.
He’s no more successful with the contrast between Powell, Clem (a quaker liberal and wartime conscientious objector), his determinedly principled wife, Marjorie (Paula Wilcox) and Sultan, a Pakistani immigrant wishing to become more English than the English.
Both Powell and Sultan served in WWII in different parts of the Armed Forces; ie they share more under the skin than the difference in skin colour – but the contrasts often seem strained though occasionally inspired by real life experiences.
Hannan certainly captures and portrays the sentimental romanticism of Powell and his sense of the grammar school Tory outsider speaking for the neglected white English working class (did Farage take a leaf from his book, one wonders?)
And he is also at his best trying to disentangle what it means to `belong’, the elements that go into dividing people the one from the other, and the meaning of `racist’.
`We are all racists’, declares Sofia after Rose’s part as a child with a gang of other young black kids is revealed spitting at white `war widow’ Grace Hughes, currently being wooed by Sultan (Paula Wilcox again in a storming doubling up of roles).
Sofia too confesses that she and her family, émigrés from the Cypriot divisions between Turk and Greek, also belong in the same category. In order to belong, Hannan is suggesting, you need to find an enemy to hate. It gives you a sense of identity.
As a play, there is so much in What Shadows that touches on and echoes today’s myriad trouble spots, it could hardly be more topical.
Yet Roxana Silbert’s production somehow fails to animate Hannan’s tendency to dialectical overkill as he tugs and teases at the issues, almost to the point of standstill.
It’s a valiant, important attempt served well enough by Ti Green’s design of white birch trees and back projections conjuring rural backwaters and urban sitting rooms.
I’d so liked to have warmed more to its intelligence and Hanna’s much needed analysis. But in the end, as a theatrical experience, it simply didn’t work for this viewer. More baffled than stirred.
A new play by Chris Hannan
Saeed/Bobby/Sgt Shergar: Waleed Akhtar
Sultan/Doctor Sharma: Ameet Chana
Rose Cruickshank/Joyce Cruickshank: Amelia Donkor
Clem Jones: Nicholas Le Prevost
Enoch Powell: Ian McDiarmid
Sofia/Pamela: Joanne Pearce
Grace/Marjorie Jones: Paula Wilcox
Young Rose Cruickshank: Niyala Clarke, Sienna Clarke, Ami Marks, Tsemaye Masile
Director: Roxana Silbert
Designer: Ti Green
Lighting Designer: Chahine Yavroyan
Original Sound Design: Giles Thomas
Video Designer: Louis Price
Movement Director: Anna Morrissey
Voice and Dialect Coach: Stephen Kemble
Casting Director: Gaby Dawes
Associate Director: Luke Kernaghan
Assistant Sound Designer: Chris Drohan
Wigs and Wardrobe Supervisor: Cecily King
A Birmingham Repertory Theatre production.
Presented by Oliver Mackwood and Charles Diamond in association with Park Theatre.
First performance of What Shadows at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London, Sept 27, 2017. Runs to Oct 28, 2017
World premiere in The Studio, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Oct 27, 2016
Review published on this website, Oct 5, 2017