Annie Warren reviews Chris Hannan’s What Shadows, an eerily relevant meditation on immigration and identity.
If I said “Enoch Powell” to you, what image would come to mind? For me, it was a vague notion of a racist Conservative party member who nobody really liked. After seeing Chris Hannan’s What Shadows, I expected to have gained a more of an insight into Powell’s life and an understanding of the anti-immigration policies he supported. While the former is true, the latter certainly isn’t.
The venue for the play is the Park Theatre, where the audience and actors are so close that you can’t help but feel intimately involved in the onstage action, thereby adding to the immediacy of the dialogue. Ian McDiarmid gives an intriguing and complex performance as Powell, portraying the politician as an intelligent though inherently flawed man. The piece flits between the sixties and nineties and presents Powell surrounded by fictional characters – two Quaker friends who help him to write his speeches, a retired Indian soldier who somehow manages to convince an astoundingly racist white woman to marry him and two Oxford professors reconciling their differences over a shared project.
Knowing very little about Powell’s life, I was tempted to do a thorough Google search of these figures to discern whether they were based on real people; this was rendered unnecessary as the play continued and their implausibility as characters became evermore apparent. An academic with a drinking problem and a superiority complex? Heard that one before. More than characters, they are mouthpieces for opinions that contrast with Powell’s angry tirades, which remain shockingly racist even when considered in context.
The improbable characters detract neither from the exceptionally strong performances all round, nor the play’s compelling and at times extremely moving script. This is due in part to the fact that although Powell is at the heart of the piece, his redemption or lack thereof does not appear to be the pivotal issue. Rather, the play can be seen as a timely reflection on nationalism and how it impacts the way in which we view ourselves. I doubt that a single member of the audience could fail to remark on the relevance of the clear themes of immigration and identity, words that reverberate throughout the discourse. In a nod to Shakespeare, that indisputable pillar of Englishness, the play poses the question, who is it that can tell me who I am?
Twenty years before Powell made his “Rivers of Blood” speech, Simone de Beauvoir recognised that the way others see us does not always correspond with the way we see ourselves. In her seminal work The Second Sex, she explores whether it is possible to reconcile these opposing images. Through each character, Hannan finds a way to reframe this question with reference to race and seems to point out that no meaningful developments can be made as long as our national self-image depends on others to oppose it. Perhaps the way forward as a society is a stronger and more flexible sense of self, with built-in wiggle room to accommodate others who would like to share in a part of that identity.
While the point could be considered laboured at times, What Shadows remains a thought-provoking piece of theatre with moments of real comedy and poignancy that is well worth going to see. Best of all, it doesn’t even ask you to sympathise with a racist politician. It’s a yes from me.
Featured image credit: Aly Wright