Theatre: What Shadows

Written by: Samuel Wood

Recent times have seen an unnerving surge in right-wing politics. President Trump’s campaign to ‘make America great again’ saw him make the audacious promise to ‘build a wall’. France saw the uneasy ascent of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in its general elections and Germany’s AfD, (the first openly nationalist party in almost six decades) celebrated an unprecedented third place victory in its recent elections.

Then there’s the UK – we’ve seen the rise and fall of UKIP, a bid for Scottish independence, an uncomfortable coalition with the nationalist DUP and who could forget, Brexit. At the very centre of all this is arguably the most contentious issue of our modern times – immigration.

Amelia Donkor as Rose holding arms up next to Joanne Pearce as Sophia

Through the historical lense of Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech, Chris Hannan’s timely play What Shadows attempts to deal with just that.

MP Powell’s provocative and much debated speech sparked outrage after he warned the influx of immigrants would destroy the UK’s national identity. The play itself is split across the decades, dealing with the events leading up to the infamous speech and years later when a young black Oxbridge professor attempts to ‘speak across the anger that divides us’ and understand Powell’s reasoning and intentions.

Surrounded by a solid ensemble of actors, Powell is played by Ian McDiarmid, known to many as Senator Palpatine in the Star Wars trilogies. McDiarmid’s performance is both detailed and nuanced, offering a finely tuned portrait of this most controversial figure. The plot offers an almost comprehensive history of the racial and cultural tensions surrounding immigration in the UK and forces the spectator to examine what shadows of racial prejudice might be lurking beneath the surface of their own being.

The show becomes somewhat of an intellectual exercise rather then entertainment however – bursting at the seams with characters, locations, time periods, subplots, and above all else – dialogue. Director Roxanna Silbert’s simple staging puts her trust in that dialogue with little use for any other theatrical storytelling techniques.

It seems despite a definite desire to say something with the play, Hannan has clouded his intentions with too much of – well – everything. A few careful edits would have gone a long way – cutting some of the extraneous could have helped the plays point sing a little more clearly.

That said, criticism for Hannan’s work has been aimed at a writer far beyond his years and experience, so I will say this for the piece; flawed yes, but an extremely bold and intelligent rendering overall – finely acted and well worth a watch.

 

What Shadows is on at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park until 28th October. Book tickets here.

Photos by Mihaela Bodlovic.

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