There are many shadows, physical and metaphorical, cast over the fervent talk and bustling activity of the people featured in this play What Shadows, as there have been over the very impressive series of works written over the years by Chris Hannan.
In his earliest play, Elizabeth Gordon Quinn, the protagonist was a doughty woman reduced to poverty and dwelling in a slum but defying all efforts to make her sell her grand piano, because she ‘refused to be poor’. His more recent adaptation of Crime and Punishment took him into an underworld where light rarely shone.
The literal shadows in this case are cast by the clump of trees which dominate the centre of the stage, and remain as a fixture in every scene, while people come and go in front of them, picnicking, chattering, debating or merely lounging. This unchanging, simple but effective set is the work of designer Ti Green with variations introduced by video-designer Louis Price, who projects behind the trees shadows in the form of patterns and images which suggest at times peaceful, harmonious days of play and leisure, or at others clouds, gathering storms or turbulence of mind and heart.
The rural innocence of the backdrop to What Shadows is unnerving and unexpected, granted that the protagonist is Enoch Powell and the subject is the impact of his (in)famous speech which did not actually contain the words ‘rivers of blood’, but which gave respectability to racist thought and warned that the black man might ‘hold the whip hand over the white man’. He is not here a panto villain and a humanizing passion; in Hannan’s presentation of him, is a nostalgia for an England which may have existed only in the mind and the imagination, a place of green fields and rolling roads, of stout yeomen and warm ale, although that was not Powell’s phrase. Powell represented an urban constituency, and his appeal was to city dwellers, but the England of his fantasy was elsewhere. He is first seen not on a podium but seated on the grass beneath the trees with his wife and a couple of friends, enjoying a sandwich and a cup of tea, relishing the beauty of the countryside around him. ‘I would die for Shropshire,’ he declares. I have no idea whether the historical Powell spoke such words or entertained such thoughts, but the notion has complete dramatic coherence.
For this England is under threat, and that is the whole point. England, Englishness and its identity are at the heart of this unremittingly intellectual and probing piece. The nations on the so-called Celtic fringe are accustomed to debating issues of identity, and are by now familiar, if not quite at ease, with identity politics, but until Jez Butterworth staged Jerusalem a couple of years ago, no one had ventured to look at the England of the silent people (G K Chesterton’s famous words) or at their identity and folklore. Butterworth’s hero too lived in the country, not the city, and once again the idyllic utopia is rural. Now a Scottish writer has entered the debate and has brought a new perspective, but this is England, not Britain. The flag intermittently glimpsed is the banner of St George, not the Union Jack. Powell does refer to an England stretching from Plymouth to Aberdeen, but that does not imply a recognition that Aberdeen is elsewhere.
These people talk and talk. What Shadows is a debating piece, some times dizzying in its dialectics but at others, notably in the second half, tending to drag. The words alone matter. Ethical and political dilemmas are argued and filleted, but left up in the air, as in the best theatre. This is the drama of debate, not statement, far removed from agit-prop. There is no developing plot as such, but rather a kaleidoscope of scenes involving the same characters, who produce clever aphorisms and circle round each other with suspicion tempered by a precarious friendship. The interpersonal balance is delicately conveyed but cannot be maintained, for if there is no emotional dimension, there are outbreaks of passionate anger dictated by adherence to principle. The rupturing of a friendship after Powell delivers his speech seems inevitable. Previously, he had enjoyed the company and conversation of a liberal journalist, Clem Jones, played with understated elegance and restraint by Nicholas Le Prevost. His wife, a delicately modulated performance by Paula Wilcox, had tried to involve Powell in a cultural circle she ran, dedicated to the study of that most English of writers, Samuel Johnson, but later she angrily throws the text of his speech in Powell’s uncomprehending face. He could not see the wrong he had done in voicing opinions he believed were widely held but which durst not speak their name. It is not the only echo of our times. Every populist believes he has the backing of the people, and sometimes does.
Hannan requires his audience to face complexity. One Pakistani man comes forward to say he had fought in the British army and loves an England which is as fictional as the land Powell wishes to preserve. His party piece is a Harry Lauder song, but he unintentionally offends a woman from Barbados when he refers to her as black. In her homeland, they have their own hierarchy of colours, and she has no wish to be described in those terms. So what is their identity? Powell is equally disconcerted when a gay man of colour thanks him effusively for voting in favour of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. As a man well versed in the practices of ancient Greece, Powell had no aversion to same-sex love, but he also believed the state should have no say over what a person does with his/her own body.
There are undertones of the tragic in this play, allowing the central character to emerge as a combination of Othello and Iago. He is not a good man but nor is he straightforwardly malevolent. He is led where he goes not by an external evil counsellor but by himself. George Bernard Shaw wrote that the most difficult character to create in his St Joan was the Inquisitor. To put on stage a devil without redeeming characteristics was easy but pointless and dramatically futile, he wrote. The basic requirement was to write from inside the man, to identify if not his humanity then at least his complexity, and to present the world view which motivated him. Hannan would seem to me to have succeeded in this task with his Powell character. An acquaintance remarks that he has ‘a horrible poetic streak’ and the words are not ironic. He has limited self-awareness even if he is given to quoting the celebrated words over the entrance to the grove of the oracle at Delphi – Know Thyself.
He knows himself inadequately, and however polished his talk, however redolent of classical rhetoric, he has only the weakest grasp of the impact of language on other people. He could see no fault in referring to babies as ‘piccaninnies’, and his own inner certainties make him impregnable to all assaults, whether quietly rational or noisily enraged. He refers to himself as a man alone, with no discomfort at being isolated, but also as a storm or even a hurricane. He arrogated to himself the right to speak for an England which has no voice, and even anticipates Theresa May in claiming to be the representative and mouthpiece of the working classes.
I doubt if the part could be better played than here by Ian McDiarmid. The make-up staff have even done a fine job in producing a remarkable physical resemblance, while he reproduces that clipped speech and the jerky movements of hand and upper body which suggest an unquiet mind. As a climax to the first Act, he delivers Powell’s speech in tones which are initially wheedling but which rise to a pitch of stentorian dogmatism. Nothing convinces like conviction, and this is a man who speaks from the very centre of his being, for good or ill.
And that is the question. Political and social questions are debated over an expanding time frame that jumps back and forward between 1968 and 1992, but always with an eye on the present. Intertwined with the appearance of Powell and his suite are encounters between two women, Rose who is black and Sofia who is white. Rose is a historian who wants Sofia to collaborate on a book which would take an interview with Enoch as starting point, but initially makes no headway with her. Rose wants to establish her own identity as an immigrant, and even confesses to some prejudices of her own, as does Sofia who believes ‘we are all racist’.
The underlying questions are flipped over in the second half to become – when did or does history end? Is there an immutable English community, or if the history of the country takes in the immigration of Normans, Eastern Europeans Jews and Irish, why should the most recent arrivals be viewed as a threat? Powell loses none of his confidence, but faces his nemesis in his advancing years. Now elderly and dependent, his strength weakened, his voice more reedy, he is seen in some form of infirmary or care home being attended to by a Pakistani doctor, who reads out questions from a clipboard. One routine question, to test failing memory, is a request to identify the current prime minister in 1992. Powell’s reply is withering. Later dressed in dark suit, with a poppy in his lapel and carrying a walking stick, his presence as welcome as Banquo’s at the feast, he declares that he was ‘once Enoch Powell’. Interviewed by Rose and Sofia (Amelia Donkor and Joanne Pearce, both splendid), who are now collaborating on an analysis of the impact of his speech, he points to Islamist terrorism, riots in the cities, and the jihad. He cannot contain his rage at the very word ‘multiculturalism’, and splutters that he was right all along, that his warnings were not heeded.
What Shadows was premiered at Birmingham Rep and has been sensitively directed by Roxana Silbert. It is too important a work to be left in the shadowy underground of works only briefly seen in the light.
What Shadows, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, run ended.