Many Rivers to Cross: What Shadows at Park Theatre

Saturday 28th October 2017, matinée

It is a brave author who makes Enoch Powell that central character in a drama.  Is this going to be an attempt to justify the famous ‘rivers of blood speech’ that ended Powell’s political career whilst also preserving his name for posterity as a byword for divisive racism?  What Shadows? is a serious attempt to answer the question of whether his actions could be defended and why he did what he did, as well as giving us some food for thought fifty years on, when this debate still seems so fraught with difficulty.

Chris Hannan’s play is interested in Powell less as an end point to the drama, but more as a catalyst to those around him.  Despite his immediate sacking from the shadow cabinet, Powell did not resign as an MP, and some of his supporters at the time claimed that his views reflected the majority of his constituents and of public opinion generally.  He received many letters of support, and a remarkable array of modern politicians, whilst holding back from expressing agreement with his views, praised his ‘foresight’ in predicting future events.  Alongside this personal story, Hannan weaves a (we assume fictional) tale of a female academic who was sacked for her perceived defence of the speech and her young black former protegé, as they try to work together to find a way of ‘talking to people you hate’ to find some resolution. Their arguments and retelling/ misremembering of their own stories form a wider perspective.

The portrait of the man himself is masterful in allowing us space to ponder what his motives might have been.  He had a highly successful career in the military, yet he formed a lifelong friendship with a Quaker, Clem Jones, who had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War.  And it is Clem’s wife Marjorie who clings to the friendship as a source of intellectual nourishment and encourages her journalist husband to help their friend get more coverage in the press.  It would be an understatement to say she had no idea of the monster she was creating.  We will never quite know what he intended, but there are tantalising ideas presented to us – was it political ambition?  The mistaken belief that if he could just get people’s attention, it wouldn’t matter what he actually said?  Or did he really feel obligated to slavishly put forward the views of his constituents, however repugnant?  Or was it just a blind-spot which led him to self-destruct in his own bitterness at seeing the British Empire coming to an end?

In the final act of the play, Hannan gives us a fictitious showdown between Powell and the feisty, young, black academic, who, quickly realising that trying to win the argument with facts is getting her nowhere, tricks him into an esoteric exploration of the ideas, surgically unpicking the roots of his racism and discovering with horror how deep they go, like a tumour that cannot be removed without killing the patient.  Here we see a portrait of Enoch Powell at his best and worst, brilliantly deconstructing his own position whilst clinging to it for dear life.

The play is held together by a mesmerising performance from Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell.  This is about a close as he is likely to get to a sympathetic and rounded portrayal but it is unflinching in its unsentimentality.  As Clem Jones, Nicholas Le Prevost is the perfect foil.  Stoical and thoughtful, he has watched his friend with unease for some time and his disappointment at being proved right is palpable.  Joanne Pierce delivers a perfect pair of doubled-up roles, firstly as Pamela, Powell’s wife, staunchly supportive throughout and yet somehow overlooked.  As Sofia Nicol the academic, she captures a passionate and articulate character whose fearless search for the truth is deeply rooted in her past.  Paula Wilcox’s Marjorie Jones is one of the most complex characters, attracted to Powell’s intellect and desperate for the excitement of academic debate, but blind to the damage she is doing by associating herself with him.  In a witty and often comedic performance, she brilliantly portrays the downfall of a highly intelligent woman who fails to appreciate the human cost of her actions until it’s too late.

This play is full of ideas and challenges to the stereotypical view of politics and race – sometimes it feels overloaded with ideas and avenues that there is not enough time to explore.  But if food for thought is the aim, Hannan more than succeeds in revitalising the debate about British identity, an impressive feat indeed in the current political climate.

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