Chris Hannan’s play, What Shadows, was billed as being about a Black British woman’s search for resolution after growing up in Wolverhampton in the aftermath of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Half of the play focused on the friendship, ultimately shattered, between the Powells and Clement and Marjorie Jones. Clement Jones was editor of one of the largest regional papers of the time, the Wolverhampton Express & Star and both couples lived in Wolverhampton and were close friends despite differing political views. This is by far the strongest part of the play.
The other storyline revolves around Rose Cruickshank, who was brought up by a light-skinned mother from Barbados who dislikes her darker-skinned Black daughter. Rose grows up, goes to Oxford, gets a white female academic, Sophia Nicol, fired for being racist, and gets her job … she then turns into an occasional drunk and goes looking for Sophia to persuade her to write a book on identity together. During the course of their interaction, Rose realizes that she is also a racist (having spat at a white woman who called her ‘nig-nog’ when she was 10), that we’re all a little bit racist, and that her statements about deaths of Black citizens in police custody are insignificant in the light of her having spat at a white woman when she was 10.
The two storylines are brought together with Rose interviewing Enoch in 1992 in order to learn how people who hate each other can talk to each other. Enoch is calm and measured in his longing for an England that he can no longer recognize and Rose is shrill and dogmatic – none of the intelligence that she must have in becoming an Oxford Don is on display. They eventually come to an agreement, via random discursive detours on Muslim extremists and the Rushdie affair, that England belongs to those who claim her.
The key messages of the play feed directly into and reinforce the Brexit discourses of the ‘left behind’ and the ‘legitimate grievances’ of the true sons and daughters of England. The play confuses Britain and England while ignoring Powell’s divisive role in Northern Ireland. Immigrants and those who are immigrant-descended have no place and no claim despite the apparent resolution. Powell is white-washed and shown to be the expression of a legitimate point of view.
The play is at its strongest in the first half when the words of Powell are those from his own mouth. In the second part, he is made to voice claims about Muslims that post-date both his own death and 9/11; a device which reinforces the play’s problematic political message. Significantly, the play’s Muslim characters are allowed no resolution. Powell himself rejects Sultan, despite their common wartime experience, and the racist white woman that Sultan marries, in one of the play’s moments of reconciliation, disavows him at the end as she slips into dementia, forgetting that they had ever been married. Is this Hannan’s ultimate comment on the possibilities for living together across our differences? It is certainly at odds with the formal ending he presents.
An inadequate play (despite very fine acting) for dangerous times – one-sided by virtue of seeking to be even-handed. We should all be afraid when the words of Enoch Powell are the normalized terms of debate.
The play continues at The Rep till 12 November.
The image is from the play’s promotional material.