What Shadows? Representing Enoch Powell

what-shadowsChris 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.

11 thoughts on “What Shadows? Representing Enoch Powell”

  1. The problem as I see it, as a writer, is when Hannan veered from reality on two fronts. The character of Rose is taken from a likely fabricated story that Enoch ‘quoted’ in the Birmingham speech: that of the only white lady in a street who was spat on by kids. Powell would never reveal the story’s source, and it was never proven. To extrapolate a play’s central device from a probable lie is a dangerous move which could perhaps work, but Rose’s character lacks dimension and veracity in What Shadows. And secondly, as you point out, the content of much of Rose’s ‘interview’ with Powell would not have been known to him. Not to say that in a fictitious drama it isn’t out of bounds to imagine, but I don’t think Hannan had it correct about Powell’s likely reactions and opinions on the matter, not having any records to refer to as he did in the rest of the play.

  2. Very interesting review. I haven’t seen the play, so I can’t comment on the thrust of your argument, but I’m surprised you say it “confuses Britain and England”. As Hannan is Scottish, this seems unlikely. When I interviewed him for the Guardian, we talked about how his sense of Scottishness had influenced the writing. I also wrote the programme note in which I quoted him saying, “How people think about their own Englishness is a question in my head on a pretty much daily basis.” I admit, we didn’t talk about Ireland, which is possibly your point of greater concern.

    1. Gurminder might speak for herself, but I believe the ‘confusion’ about England and Britain in the play comes from the Powell character’s lack of clarity of the importance about his own Englishness, which Hannan has his Powell character hint at but never really articulate as well as Powell himself did when he claimed, “For all the leeks, thistles and shamrocks imposed on the national psyche by Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, it is the English rose I firmly grasp like a talisman … I may hold a British passport, but England is my home.” Because this distinction was only suggested by the Powell character in among other characters’ clear discussion of “Britain,” the final effect is that we’re uncertain which of the two the play’s narrative itself concerns.

  3. Yes, I agree with Andrew here. The play presented itself as being about ‘British’ identity, but only ever articulated an ‘English’ sensibility which I thought was deeply problematic.

  4. Having caught the final night of ‘What Shadows’ at the Rep, I’d concur with Gurminder’s review. When I was a kid Powell’s name was still used as a bogeyman in street rows and playground taunts. So being old enough to have lived in the shadow of ‘Powellism’, I went along expecting something challenging but came away feeling short-changed both dramatically and politically.

    The play might have worked better if Hannan had stuck with the strong, finely acted Powell/ Jones storyline but, as a purported debate on Britishness/ Englishness/ racism, it never got off the ground. Why not? Well, for one thing, the play was hobbled by its conflation of prejudice and racism. Being a Cypriot in Ireland, a child spitting at a neighbour, the British presence in India, the economic role of migration, the power of Parliamentary voices were, over the course of two hours, all flattened out into a reductionist checklist. The premise that our starting point needs to be how we might talk with ‘people we hate’ again relied on an ahistorical understanding of racism as prejudice, as hatred of the other. The ‘people we hate’ thesis leaves too much uncovered…

    For a play that flagged up its historical/ historic context, the premise that when it comes down to it we’re all a bit racist was bathetic. Gurminder and Andrew have already pointed to ways in which the play veered from reality – and, in that sense, I found the character of Rose both historically and dramatically problematic. We were expected to buy the idea that in 1992 a black female radical academic (read shrill and hysterical) had established herself at Oxford, driven out the ‘cleverest woman in Britain’ (read legitimate academic) through a sustained hate campaign …and then gone on to a thriving academic career! Hardly convincing. Powell was humanised, Rose was a caricature. For me, that lop-sidedness undermined the play’s dynamic and whatever its intentions, it fed into the ‘legitimate grievance’ narrative, which, despite claims to the contrary, is currently a (very) widely heard story.

  5. Thanks, Andrew. The kindest thing I can say is that it was a ‘missed opportunity’. Whether, post-Brexit and post-Trump, it’s wise to be that kind is, of course, another question…

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