Park Theatre, 19th October 2005
The Park Theatre has pulled off a bit of a coup in bringing the Birmingham Rep’s production of What Shadows to London. It has been a deserved sell out. I have some misgivings, there were times when the didactisism verged on the patronising, shared by the SO who I dragged up to North London, but these were more than compensated by the brisk plot and a very fine performance from Ian McDiarmid.
Pretty much everything Mr McDiarmid touches turns to dramatic gold whether as director, (The Almeida bloomed under his joint stewardship with Jonathan Kent), or as actor on stage, large or small screen. He inhabits every character he plays. Let’s be honest he is by some margin the best actor in Star Wars.
What Shadows was no exception. He is Enoch Powell. Worth seeing for the way he captures Powell’s voice and gait alone. In the performance we went to, in the scene where his erstwhile friend, journalist Clem Jones, throws the script of the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech to the floor in disgust, most of the pages landed on Ian McDiarmid’s shoe. The way he slowly withdrew his foot, as if he relished the content but at the same time knew the sh*tstorm he would create, was masterly. I can’t believe this was deliberately staged. It just happened but he was able to take this serendipitous accident and turn it into a telling detail. Or maybe i just imagined. Either way he was very, very real.
Chris Hannan’s script takes Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech to the General Assembly of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre, which led to his sacking by Ted Heath, as its subject. Powell’s scholarly brilliance, his skills as a rhetorician, his significant contribution in WWII, his trenchant views on the European Union and on free market economics, only appear in passing. I pretty much disagree with everything he stands for politically but his influence on Conservative, and broader right wing politics, in this country has been undeniably profound (despite, or perhaps because of, the amount of time he spent criticising his own party).
But it is his views on race that turned him into a bogeyman and this is where Chris Hannan is focussed. He cleverly weaves the friendship that Powell and his briskly entitled wife Pamela (Joanne Pearce) had with Clem Jones (Nicholas Le Prevost, last seen by me in the excellent Winter Solstice at the Orange Tree which was a similarly uncomfortable watch) and Quaker wife Grace (Paula Wilcox) into the story. Similarly he takes the character of Marjorie Jones (Paula Wilcox again), the “only white woman” on a street in Birmingham, and the subject of another of Powell’s speeches, and charts her relationship with black woman, Joyce Cruikshank, and her daughter Rose Cruikshank, (both played by Amelia Donkor) as well as second husband Bobby (Waleed Akhtar). Rose herself has become an academic specialising in black history who is looking to probe the now retired Powell as part of her research. We see that she has both suffered and been the cause of past racism. She recruits Sofia (Joanne Pearce again), an older ex-colleague who career was cut short, in part by Rose’s actions, as a result of her own unpalatable opinions on race.
Whilst this set-up looks a bit awkward on paper it just about works in practice, thanks to the actors and to Roxana Silbert’s forthright direction. Having created this web of relationships to explore the politics of race and difference, Mr Hannan is then occasionally guilty of asking his characters to ram the points home which I think would naturally have emerged from the story, particularly in the case of Rose and Sofia.
Having said that though this is still a very fine play with a magnetic central performance. Powell’s own peculiar “otherness” which played a part in the thwarting of his own ambition, and his monumental self-belief, are brilliantly captured by script and actor. In my view this was no prophet but a dangerous demagogue. In his mind though prophet is exactly what he wanted to be. Our society has moved a long way since his heyday, though we seem no closer to bridging the divide between those he look out to the rest of the world and those who think we can close in, cut ourselves off and blame others for our plight.