WHAT SHADOWS: Chris Hannan
Birmingham Rep: The Studio, to 12 November 2016
Runs: 2h 45m, one interval
BO: 0121 236 4455
Review Alexander Ray Edser, 02 11 16
Stimulating, informative, timely-a terrific debate play
Chris Hannan’s play is intelligent, absorbing and absolutely timely. Roxanna Silber has orchestrated an unfussy, measured production that enables the play to speak in performance.
Enoch Powell, reckoned to be a most erudite politician, was MP for Wolverhampton South West. In April 1968, prior to the Race Relations Act that was to be signed later that year, caused a mighty explosion on the political scene with his apocalyptic ‘rivers of blood’ spech predicting race riots and worse. He did not actually use the phrase and preferred to call it his ‘Birmingham speech’, it was delivered at Birmingham’s Midland Hotel. The speech happened at around the time of the rise of the National Front—these matters excellently explored in Birmingham’s David Edgar play Destiny.
Hannan’s play examines the context of Powell’s speech, and the man behind it. The play debates the issues of race, diversity and the hopes for living together. While the play aims to set the record straight, it does not exactly attempt to rehabilitate Powell; Powell does come across as thoughtful and committed—it is left to us individually and privately to decide whether or not he is right. What is depressing is that many of Powell’s arguments have risen again; Hannan’s play makes no fashionable and glancing reference to Brexit; in his play he examines today’s arguments in detail by examining Powell’s. In this he is aided by the characters of Rose Cruickshank, a high-flying black Oxford academic and Sofia Nicol a disgraced ‘racist’ Oxford academic; this pairing draws in the current ‘PC / non-PC’ banning of speakers and so on in universities.
Hannan’s play explored race issues in all their complexities. It is never muddled, just complex. There is a slight sense that the play strives too hard for resolution in the final (and well written) scene, the only confrontation between Cruickshank and Powell; but then again, it also bears witness to the apparent and frustrating impossibility of resolution.
Ian McDiarmid is wonderful as Powell. This is a fully filled out characterisation that bears a thrilling likeness to the politician. His transition from MP at his height to the elderly statesman challenged with developing Parkinson’s is riveting, we cannot but help empathise with him.
Rebecca Scroggs carries the role of Rose with impressive authority tinged with vulnerability. Uniformly strong performances all round.
What a delight to see a play you can get your teeth into.
(Credits to follow)