Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Chris Hannan’s What Shadows is a thought-provoking piece, spanning the decades between Enoch Powell’s inflammatory ‘rivers of blood’ speech and his demise in the 1990s. Of course, in these times of Brexit and Farage, Powell’s anti-immigration rhetoric is all too relevant, and director Roxana Silbert makes the comparisons clear – there is no hiding from the questions raised by this demanding play. And very illuminating it is too. There are no easy answers on offer here, no constancies of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Everything is open to interpretation: we’re all unreliable narrators, fragmented selves, telling ourselves stories to appease our consciences. The fragility of our carefully constructed identities is underlined by Wolverhampton war widow Marjorie Jones (Paula Wilcox)’s dementia: who we are is a long way from set.
The play’s conceit is fairly simple: feuding academics Rose (Amelia Donor) and Sofia (Joanne Pearce) team up to write a book examining what it means to be English, trying to make sense of Powell’s impact on the political landscape. Through a series of flashbacks, we are forced to consider numerous viewpoints, to explore contentious ideas and situations exhaustively, from every angle. Does the play redeem Powell? Perhaps to some extent, as an individual. But it never lets him off the hook either: true, we hear his ‘Birmingham speech’ in full, but the other characters are given a right of reply, and his ideas are exposed as ignorance, borne out of fear. Or perhaps that’s just how it sounded to me, my heart giving more weight to the words that chime wth my beliefs.
The characterisation is robust: these are intriguing, fascinating people, fully realised within the text, given space to breathe and come to life by the light-touch direction. Ian McDiarmid’s performance is central to the whole piece: his Enoch Powell is more than just a clever impersonation; it’s an emotionally convincing representation of a man. I like the set too: the trees a reminder of the land itself, the ever-changing projections a subtle metaphor for the transient nature of our lives. Times change. People change. And perhaps whole point of this play is that we need to talk and listen, to try to bridge the gaps between us instead of creating chasms.