The topical transatlantic hot potato that is racial integration has just exploded like a White Supremacist nail-bomb onto the Lyceum stage. I’m always a little wary about picking open old social wounds in the name of entertainment, let sleeping rabid dogs lie kinda thing, but seeing as ignorance is in fact the bedrock of racism, encapsulating & regurgitating the essence of the tamer, slave-emancipating British variety through the educatory medium that is theatre is a prudent exercise. ‘We need to talk about England,’ the Lyceum’s artistic director, David Greig, told the Mumble, surfing the socialistic waves instigated by Brexit, for the England of 2017 is one in which the post-imperial diaspora has finally taken root. What Shadows explores what it means to be English, & in the play, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, sable-skinned Rose Cruikshank, states quite proudly & progressively, ‘we all have multiple identities, but English is what we share.’ ‘But there are some of us more English than others,’ retorts a near-death Enoch Powell, who insisted on funneling his deep-set & quite inane old-school attitudes of race & Empire into the fermenting cauldron of modern Britain. It was 1968, & his ‘Rivers of Blood Speech’ – or the ‘Birmingham Speech’ as Powell called it himself rather whimsically – would plant ideas into the British psyche which would take decades to shake off. Not quite as incendiary as the 1861 Cornerstone Address by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens which ignited the American Civil War, but still a rather combustible collection of words which escalated into abhorrent social conflict that cup-of-tea-&-a-biscuit racism of English housewives. No longer would we hear, ‘that Sheila Donnelly’s shacked up with one of them coons, y’know!’ ‘Bloody nora, I wonder what colour the kid will be?’ Instead, ‘fuck off Pakis back to your own country,’ would become the bestial norm.
The stage before us is sparse but vivid; a wee copse of permanent Silver Birches transmorphing in eclectic variations of projected video-light. The script we hear is intelligent, witty & informative; a fascinating triumph of integrity by Chris Hannon. I enjoyed his previous work for the Lyceum – in which he manage to shorten the Iliad & still make it resonate with Bronze Age beauty. With What Shadows we may observe Hannon’s growing sense of maturity, & also historicity, of which David Greig told The Mumble, ‘Chris Hannan uses his skill to shatter & examine some of the most urgent questions of the moment: Who are we? Where are we going? And who gets to decide?‘ The story is presented by a stellar cast, a cornucopian banquet of talent consisting of British-Asian stalwarts Waleed Akthar (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) & Amneet Chana (what has he not been on?), Amelia Donkor, Nicholas Le Provost, Paula Wilcox & Joanne Pearce. The richest picking on this silver platter is Ian McDiarmid, whose mountain-peaked experience was distilled into a rendition of Powell’s speech itself, with his genius steaming through every nuance of accent, emotion & snidey attack on the fledgling immigrant infrastructure of England. As an audience member born a decade after the speech, hearing McDiarmid in full flow offered a crystal clear memorial to that landmark occasion, allowing me to experience at quasi-first-hand that venomous piece of history which resonated bigotry & ignorance thoughout the land. No longer was England a place of churches, picnics & sunken lanes, but ghettos were developing in the inner cities out of which, according to Powell, legions of darkies would swarm to take over the island.
The speech came at the heart of the play – just before the interval. Before, & after, the action oscillated between the late 60s & 1992, telling Enoch’s personal story & the lingering after-effects of the speech – from Oxbridge to Wolverhampton via the barren shores of remote Scotland – while also sketching out a brief history of immigrant integration from its awkward early steps to the times when illiterate Pakistani villagers had given themselves a British education & got a decent job in a modern, accommodating & progressive society. The second half was a little drifty, lacking the dramatic tension that entailed the build-up to the speech… but the finale was excellent, a caustic conversazione between Rose Cruickshank & an elderly Enoch Powell, physically shaking with Parkinson’s Disease & spiritually shaking at the gall this young black woman had to question his inherent racist attitudes. As smart & witty as Virginia Wolfe at a literary soiree, she cut Powell to pieces during an existential debate which left me wondering what the next step of social integration is going to be. I guess, when someone asks us where we are from & who we are, we shall eventually reply only with a curt, ‘I am global.’
Reviewer : Damo