Most know it as the Rivers of Blood speech; Enoch Powell stands in a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in 1968 and condemns the levels of immigration in the country. Powell refers to it as the Birmingham speech, but who can overlook the reference from Virgil’s Aeneid in his peroration: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
Powell is quoting the Sibyl’s prophecy, a prediction to Aeneas of the battles he would face with the indigenous peoples of Italy. In Powell’s case, the speech was a warning against what he saw as the inevitability of a war fought on home soil between immigrants and British citizens.
It’s a controversial stance to say the least, but one that ex-professor Sofia Nichol (Joanne Pearce) appears to defend in the opening of Chris Hannan’s What Shadows – his kaleidoscopic examination of Powell’s speech that first made waves in Birmingham last year. With a restraint that can only be borne of ageing weariness, Pearce’s Nichol eloquently counters her young protégé’s attempts to damn the antagonistic Tory throwback. Initially, her delivery seems flat, but it eventually reveals itself as a measured response, devoid of passion to dampen down an enflamed youth’s automatic condemnation.
The counter to Powell’s spoken warning, however, is beautifully realised at the end of the second half of Chris Hannan’s play – how do we define ‘British’? How can we condemn those who were born in this country and who grew up in this land, simply because they’re not white? We are drawn by Roxana Silbert’s direction to the final altercation in 1992 between an elderly Powell (Ian McDiarmid) and an Oxford academic, Rose Cruickshank (Amelia Donkor). Everything in What Shadows slowly builds to this clash of viewpoints, a concluding truce that hangs uneasily in the air. Opposing moral stances butt heads in a conflict of intelligence; the two actors pour their characterisations into a scene that intentionally longs for identity but resonates with gravitas.
Silbert maintains a tight grip on What Shadows’ sense of propriety throughout the show. Scenes conducted in the 1960s contain many racist viewpoints and personalities, but these are sensitively addressed by both script and actors. From war widow Grace Hughes (a shrill, sharp performance by Paula Wilcox), to her future husband Sultan (the affable, jovial Ameet Chana), characters discuss immigration and race in a thoughtful manner, without ever losing sight of the issue’s divisiveness. At the time of the Rivers of Blood speech, as with today, the topic was at the front of political discourse, meaning Powell’s words can partly be understood as an attempts to weasel his way into public favour. His exasperated friend Clem Jones (a subtle, reserved Nicholas Le Prevost) is unwittingly caught up in the resulting maelstrom, duped into becoming a journalistic spin doctor to magnify the impact of Powell’s career-defining moment in the spotlight.
The whole cast give balanced performances, maintaining their composure with admirable poise. But it is McDiarmid as Powell, the man continuously altering the narrative, who most impresses in What Shadows. There is exceptional variety in his every mannerism, always underpinned by a sense of misplaced moral duty, resulting in him taking dubious actions to cement his political position. From smarmy, supercilious and waxing lyrical in Latin aphorisms, to sinister and snide, McDiarmid projects a profound politicism throughout. The transformations occurs with split-second timing, the sign of an actor who is entirely in tune with his character and fully embodies the person he portrays.
What Shadows is a transporting recollection of a moment in political history, one which loses none of its poignancy in today’s uncertain climate. With McDiarmid leading the charge, cast and creative alike band together and bring considerable eloquence to this highly controversial topic.
What Shadows is at the Park Theatre until October 28th. For more details, click here.