Review: What Shadows at The Birmingham Rep

 pic by Ellie Kurttz

Ian McDiarmid (right) as Enoch Powell credit: Ellie Kurttz

Richard Lutz reviews a new play about Enoch Powell, the politician who polarised a nation with a venomous speech more than four decades ago.

‘How to speak across the anger that divides us?’ That’s among  the opening lines  in the play What Shadows.

The divisions were apparent in 1968 when Enoch Powell made his infamous Birmingham speech. And the question remains unanswered today in our post referendum Britain and in a city that was split by the EU race-tinged June vote to leave the EU.

So, it’s  right that this play, about Enoch Powell, receives its premiere in Birmingham at the Rep’s Studio Theatre. He made his so-called Rivers of Blood speech at the old Midland Hotel, sparking rage and racial hate when he warned of an onslaught of immigrants taking away the Englishness of England. It created an uproar.

Powell was consequently hated by the left, marginalised by his own Conservative party and for decades held up as a figure of intolerance. What Shadows takes on the task of giving us a rounded perspective of this controversial politician and his views on identity and race.

Ian McDiarmid plays the ex-Wolverhampton MP and his portrayal is a tour de force; the awkward body language, the strained cadences of his rhetoric, the halting delivery, the tiny hint of that flat Midland accent, the precise use of words. It is a performance that will be remembered when it hits the road after its  Birmingham run.

The actor portrays an ideologue and Cambridge classicist who clearly believed that, back in 1968, both the Tories and Labour did little to actually discuss immigration or deal with the social implications of both the impact on Britain and the impact on families arriving into a nation reluctant to accept them.

The  author Chris Hannan has not only tackled a political figure either lauded or loathed by Britain but also tackled the still prickly issue of immigration and race – a subject that easily helped Britain vote itself out of the EU in June. It is still a live and painful conflict on this island.


McDiarmid  saves the day..he is superb…

And here lies the problem. The production does wrestle with the essential issue of British (and specially English) identity. But Hannan adds in too many characters, too many sub-strands, some non essential, which muddies the hard thrust of What Shadows.. The play, directed by artistic director Roxana  Silbert, could have been chopped by a good 20%.

So, what started as a finely tuned portrait of a man nailed to his racist convictions unfortunately mires itself in the second act into a long drawn out dialogue on national identity when Powell and a black academic come to rhetorical blows. Theatre becomes, in essence, a lecture and a debate. And that is not great entertainment.

But Ian McDiarmid, known to many as Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars series if nothing else, saves the day. He is superb and worth the price of a ticket to get a rounded view of a complicated man and a complicated issue.

Until 12th November. Tickets: 0121 236 4455

4 thoughts on “Review: What Shadows at The Birmingham Rep

  1. did anyone catch Kwame Appiah’s 3rd Reith lecture on Radio 4 yesterday? It was about racial identity.

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