05 October 2017
The Park Theatre
by Adam McCormack
Star rating: ****
Are we all racists? Or are prejudices born out of an identity that comes from our culture and background? These are just two of the difficult issues that Chris Hannan’s brilliant new play raises. What Shadows is set simultaneously in 1967 at the time of Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, and in 1992 as the seriously ill Powell (Ian McDiarmid) attempts a reconciliation with a close journalist friend Clem (Nicholas Le Prevost), who had been alienated by the speech, as well as responding to probing questioning from a black historian. The play offers some insight into what drove Powell to make the speech and shows how he defended his views to his death.
What Shadows escapes from slipping into a heavy, and potentially dull, debate by telling some very human stories to convey the differing views. Black historian Rose seeks out ostracised former academic Sofia (she was seen to have sympathy with Powell) to produce a joint work on racism. At the same time she is trying to slay some of the demons, or shadows, from her own past. Why does her Barbadian mother regard Rose as inferior, for being too black? Did Rose really taunt and spit at the only white woman left in her road in Wolverhampton in the 1960’s? In essence, she is trying to find out whether both she and her mother, who for so long have felt victims of racism, are really racists themselves.
Ian McDiarmid’s Powell is an uncanny recreation. Not only does he look the part, but the speech and mannerisms have been mastered to perfection. This performance goes beyond mere mimicry to show Powell’s ambition, intellect and passion. We see the Machiavellian approach to the timing and delivery of the key speech, but also why he felt he had to make it. In the later scenes, he shows Powell’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease in a way that stops short of making him pathetic as he strives for reconciliation with his old friend. Similarly, Paula Wilcox is a revelation. She has the twin role of the quaker wife of Clem, a woman who had idolised Powell but cannot forgive him, and that of Mrs Hughes – the last white woman in the street in Wolverhampton. The wooing of the war widow Mrs Hughes, by the anglophile Indian, Saeed, (played by Waleed Akhtar) adds some very moving touches to the production.
A play like this inevitably takes some risks. There is a risk of offending by portraying racists as sympathetic characters, and a risk of being seen as preaching. These risks are navigated successfully by What Shadows. The launch of this production is timely in that a survey last week showed that one in four people admit to being racist. Walking out of this play you might be inclined to view that proportion as being a lot higher.
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