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What Shadows
"I was a storm. I was also a man entirely alone in a storm. There were forces beyond my control and I was one of them." — Enoch Powell
What Shadowsv
Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell (Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic)
In 1968 a senior Conservative politician and member of the Shadow Cabinet under Edward Heath, Enoch Powell (Ian McDiarmid) made a speech in Birmingham which divided the nation. Polls at the time showed that up to 75% of the electorate agreed with what he appeared to be saying. The speech became known as the "rivers of blood" speech after Powell, a professor of Greek and Classics before he was a member of parliament, quoted the Aeniad to describe the changes and potential conflict that he envisaged with the wave of immigration from the Caribbean. The liberal minded found his speech offensive and was dubbed with the language of the day as a "racialist".

He was quoting from a letter from his constituent, a woman who claimed to be the last white woman in her Wolverhampton street, who said she was abused and spat at in the street when she refused to let rooms to immigrants. Powell had long been a defender of the English nation and English values but after this speech he found that his political career was at an end and he was vilified by the Left and his own party, the Conservatives. Prominent figures on the left, like Michael Foot, said that Powell had been misinterpreted and misunderstood.

Chris Hannan's new play looks at the figure of this politician through the eyes of a girl, Rose Cruickshank (Amelia Donkor) whose parents were from the Caribbean and who becomes an Oxford academic and who seeks out Powell to interview him in the 1990s. The plays chops and changes through scenes from 1968 to 1992 showing Powell and his wife Pamela Powell (Joanne Pearce) picnicking with their friends Clem and Marjorie Jones (Nicholas Le Prevost and Paula Wilcox) in the 1960s, and Rose visiting her Oxford lecturer Sofia Nicol (Joanne Pearce) on Scotland's West coast where the ex-don is tending to her lobster pots.

Much of the first act is setting the scene with glimpses of Powell's background in the classics. He was an early advocate of gay rights before they were called gay rights, taking his position from the Ancient Greeks' attitude to homosexuality. At the close of the first act comes the Birmingham speech and we know that what we have seen in Act One is setting up the drama for Act Two.

In Act Two Powell is confronted by Rose. She quotes from the waves of immigration, sounding a little like Richard Bean's England People very Nice: the French Huguenots in the 17th century, the Irish, the Jewish families and more recently those from the Caribbean, from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Religious and economic migrants many of whom have fully integrated and become British. But Powell says they may be British but they will never be English. Rose describes people as having many different and complex identities. Powell discusses the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie with his friend Clem and they debate fundamentalism in relation to Islam.

The performance from Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell is outstanding as he conveys the sincerity of a man condemned for voicing what he believed in. We can only imagine the way Enoch Powell would have voted in the Brexit vote, he had opposed the Common Market vote in the mid 1970s, but he would have been pleased at the prominence given to arguments about national sovereignty.

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What Shadows
Written by Chris Hannan
Directed by Roxana Silbert
Starring: Ian McDiarmid, Joanne Pierce, Paula Wilcox, Nicholas Le Prevost, Amelia Donkor
With: Waleed Akhtar, Ameet Chana
Designer: Ti Green
Lighting Design: Chahine Yavroyan
Video Design: Louis Price
Sound Design: Giles Thomas
Movement: Anna Morrissey
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes including an interval
Box Office: 020 7870 6876
Booking to 28th October 2017
A Birmingham Repertory Theatre Production
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 2nd October 2017 preview performance at the Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP (Tube: Finsbury Park)
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