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The Theatreguide.London Review

What Shadows
Park Theatre   Autumn 2017

An engrossing portrait of an important – many would say notorious – political figure, Chris Hannon's play is as thought-provoking and debate-stimulating as it is dramatically engrossing.

If you want drama that will make you think and feel, this may well be one of your most satisfying theatrical experiences of the year. 

Enoch Powell (1912-1998) was a Conservative (later Ulster Unionist) Member of Parliament, generally agreed to be one of the finest speakers and thinkers of his political generation. But he is one of those figures whose entire career of broad and significant public service is overshadowed by one issue that forever defined him.

In 1968 Powell made a widely-reported speech warning that recent waves of immigration from southern Asia and the West Indies would lead to self-segregation and failures to assimilate that would threaten Britain's cultural unity and lead to racial violence. 

He quickly became (and remained for the rest of his life, despite his work in other areas) the voice of reasonable-sounding racism in Britain.

It could be argued that that made him particularly dangerous, because he could make racism sound respectable. But surveys showed that a large segment of the afraid-of-change population agreed with him, and playwright Hannan has him say that those people need a member of the establishment speaking for them or they will turn to more dangerous demagogues. 

Chris Hannan's warts-and-all dramatic portrait makes it clear that while there was unquestionably a xenophobic racism within Powell's crusade, along with a large helping of messianic egotism, his real driving passion was the fear of losing the British cultural identity, the half-mythical and largely Victorian sense of England and Empire. 

Hannon does not hide or excuse the evil of racism, but convincingly shows that Powell was speaking for something much more complex, and perhaps even forgiveable, than mere prejudice. 

The play shows Powell in the weeks before and after the infamous 1968 speech, and puts it in the context of two other plot lines – the lives of some ordinary British neighbours, white, Indian and Caribbean, as they manoeuvre their way through what was later to be called multicultural Britain, and, in scenes set in 1992, a pair of female academics (themselves disagreeing sharply on the nature of racism) hoping to use Powell as the focus of a study of race relations. 

Except for setting up a brilliantly written and dramatically engrossing climactic debate between one of the women and the aged but still fiery Powell, the 1990s subplot is the weakest part of the play. 

Also unsuccessful is the playwright's attempt to equate the racial and culture-clash issue with other experiences ranging from marriage to madness under the umbrella label of threats to one's sense of identity. 

The real power of the play lies in Powell himself, in the portrait of a complex and undeniably talented man, and in the the fair presentation of his ideas, whose sincerity and thoughtfulness we must respect even as we reject them as abhorrent. 

Obviously the play lives or dies on the back of the actor playing Powell, and Ian McDiarmid is a performer who can signal his character's intelligence without effort and convey the sense of immense bottled-up energy while standing perfectly still. 

His Powell is a quick thinker as well as a deep one, and never happier than when being challenged, either by close-but-later-estranged friend, the journalist Clem Jones, or by the antagonistic-and-almost-a-match-for-him academic woman.

He is also the totally believable mix of virtues and flaws that makes for a fascinating dramatic character, and McDiarmid's performance is one of the most effortlessly stage-dominating you are likely to see in a year. 

There is solid support from the rest of the small, sometimes role-doubling cast, most notably Amelia Donker as his debating adversary and Nicholas Le Prevost as Jones. 

What Shadows does not excuse Powell or what he stood for. But it makes you understand where he was coming from and gives some sense of the man's intellect and magnetism, as misguided as they may have been.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  What Shadows - Park Theatre 2017


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