What Shadows by writer Chris Hannan at The Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh is a Birmingham Repertory Theatre production that uses as its core material the now infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech by Enoch Powell as the focal point to explore, through a small group of people and a time frame of 25 years, not only the speech itself but the aftermath of it and the very concept of human “identity”.
The term “Rivers of Blood” was of course a media fabrication, Enoch Powell never used those words anywhere in his “Birmingham Speech”. Instead, this intellectual classical (a professor of ancient Greek at 25 years old) scholar made an allusion to a line in Virgil's Aeneid. What Enoch Powell did however clearly claim to be doing was giving voice to many “ordinary people” who were raising their concerns of “British” and personal identity to him. The tragedy of this speech of course was that Enoch Powell chose for whom and what type of identity he wanted to be a voice.
We are nearly 50 years on from this speech, and although the landscape of British politics has changed enormously since then, the “Rivers of Blood” speech will not go away, and the “Dark Shadows” that it shone a light on are as with us as much today as they were then. In fact, these “Dark Shadows” are deeply imbedded in not only British history over many centuries, but across the world, and it is interesting that in this work, Chris Hannan chooses to not take the easy route that many lesser writers would have taken when basing a work around this speech and looking at it as simply polar opposites. Instead, Chris uses this work to look at the highly complex issues of race, identity and prejudice from many different views and bring the subject matter right down to the individual. At this level the characters in our story, and our own selves, are forced to examine the “Dark Shadows” within us all, and like looking at a multi-faceted jewel, or a very dark reflection in a mirror that we pretend not to see, we explore the issue that we all carry inside of us, some almost in-built form of prejudice, and that prejudice can take many different forms - racial, social, religious, intellectual, national, economic…the list seems almost endless.
Cleverly, this script does not try to instruct us that one view or another is the right one to take. Instead, through a cast of gifted actors that include Joanne Pearce, Paula Wilcox, Waleed Akhtar, Ameet Chana, Amelia Donkor, Nicholas Le Prevost and Ian McDiarmid, we get to explore at an individual character’s level not only the events leading up to this speech, but the aftermath of it and as far as the limits of this work allow us to, a little bit deeper into the “identity” of our characters, and that exploration brings along some unexpected surprises for some and uncomfortable facts for others. To varying degrees the relationships between our characters work very well and much of this is of course down to the skills of our very gifted cast. Holding everything together though is an outstanding performance from Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell and the delicacy of his portrayal of the larger than life firebrand speaker of the infamous speech to the fragile but still intellectually sharp elderly and ostracised from his political party and former “friends” Enoch is an interesting transformation to watch.
Our time frame here constantly shifts between 1968 and 1992, and along the way our geographical locations shift many times, and this is actually one of the rare occasions that the original sparsity of set that the original repertory production would have used works well here as we are given few physical on stage props, and instead much of our imagery is projected behind our cast on screen.
If there is any lesson here, it is that history has shown us many times the consequences of getting things wrong. For some reason though, we keep choosing either to ignore that history, or too often not properly investigating the facts of that history. Even if we do investigate the facts though, we tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over by choosing to only select the facts that we want and interpret them to our own needs. History might not have all the answers, but many of the questions have already been raised over a long period of time, and we are for some reason continuing to ignore the obvious consequences of not addressing the issues properly. One of the great ironies of Enoch Powell’s “Birmingham Speech” of course was that as a classical scholar and historian that he, better than most people should have understood the consequences of being selective with history.
An interesting little add on to this show for me was the use of some of the background music used and how easily words can be taken out of their original context to have other possible meanings depending on the context they are placed in…meanings that they were never originally intended to have. If you can do this with lines from The Beatles “Get Back” and The Who “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, how easy is it to do this with anything written or spoken?
“What Shadows” is a work that has many levels, and perhaps the most frightening “Dark Shadows” of all are the ones that lie buried deep within every one of us, and only by confronting and dealing with our own selves first will we ever get anywhere near to even starting to deal with the far wider issues that need to be dealt with not only in the UK but across this very troubled world.
Review by Tom King