Nuanced portrayal of a time of darkness
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh Until September 23
Seen at Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy Touring until November 11
CHRIS Hannan is one of the most important dramatists that Scotland has ever produced. The author of such plays as Elizabeth Gordon Quinn and Shining Souls, he helped pave the way for the writers, such as David Greig, Zinnie Harris, David Harrower and Anthony Neilson, who brought international recognition to Scottish playwriting in the 1990s.
Like some of the authors who followed him, Hannan’s work has often emerged in the English theatrical context as well as the Scottish. It is appropriate, therefore, that his latest play,
What Shadows, should grapple with the modern history of national and ethnic identity in Britain. Directed by Roxana Silbert for the Birmingham Rep, the drama (which premiered in Birmingham in October of last year) focuses upon the right-wing, British nationalist politician Enoch Powell. Shifting back-and-forth between the 1960s and the 1990s, the piece hinges on the infamous “rivers of blood” speech Powell made in Birmingham in 1968, in which he warned of a bloody civil war in the UK if non-white immigration were not stopped and, by implication, reversed.
The play is built of two converging narratives. One involves the tortured friendship between the Powells (Enoch and his wife Pamela) and the Joneses (Powell’s journalist friend Clem and his wife Marjorie). The other follows the fictive field research of Rose Cruickshank (a black Oxford academic who was brought up in Powell’s constituency in Wolverhampton) and Sofia Nicol (a white former academic forced out of Oxford following accusations of racism, levelled by Cruickshank, among others).
For the most part Hannan’s play navigates its sensitive and weighty subject with a compelling, forensic theatricality. The intellectual and moral jousting between Enoch Powell and Clem Jones is reminiscent of the arguments between the nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Weiner Heisenberg in Michael Frayn’s drama Copenhagen.
Cruickshank and Nicol’s project (to interview Powell after tracing some of the people who Cruickshank lived beside in the late 1960s) seems unlikely, and the black professor’s sudden and complete denunciation of her childhood self stretches one’s credulity too far. However, this plot line does allow Hannan to build a credible, human, sometimes humorous picture of the growth of modern multiculturalism in the West Midlands of England.
Silbert’s production is played on a simple set, with a few trees evoking a park or a forest, and carefully employed, unobtrusive projections evoking other locations as and when required. It boasts a universally fine cast, including Amelia Donkor (excellent as both Rose Cruikshank and, back in the 1960s, her mother Joyce) and Nicholas Le Prevost (captivating as Clem Jones, caught between his Quaker morality and his personal loyalty to Powell).
The sun around which the entire play revolves is, of course, the character of Powell himself. He is played with brilliant understanding and nuance by the great Ian McDiarmid.
Here is the Powell who, as a Conservative government minister in the 1950s, encouraged immigration from Britain’s former colonies and voted, in 1967, for the decriminalisation of male homosexuality; in one poignantly comic scene, a young, gay Asian man approaches Powell to thank him for his role in the gay rights vote in Parliament.
However, this is also Powell the unduly certain, patrician politician who, insisting upon the separation of his British nationalism from racial supremacism, made the most dangerous speech on immigration to afflict British politics in the second half of the 20th century. To represent these personal and political contradictions, both when Powell was at the height of his powers and in his twilight years, is an extremely demanding task. McDiarmid achieves it with a shuddering sense of truth.
There has only ever been a grain a truth in Tony Roper’s popular comedy The
Steamie. Currently on its 30th anniversary tour, this shamelessly nostalgic play invites us to once again don the rose-tinted specs and have a gander at a Glaswegian communal washhouse circa 1949. It’s New Year’s Eve and old Mrs Culfeathers is still “takin’ in a washin’, at her age!” Protestant Dolly asks probing questions of Catholic Margrit, as if the latter is a religious scholar, rather than a workingclass woman with an alcoholic husband.
Young Doreen, her head in a whirl of American movie stars and post-war optimism, dreams of a palatial home, with front and back doors, in Drumchapel. Meanwhile, washhouse manager Andy is well lubricated, having taken more than a tipple from the Hogmanay bottles the women have secreted among the dirty washing. This production, which is directed by Roper himself, delivers The Steamie, the full Steamie and nothing but The Steamie. Kenny Miller’s beautifully detailed set is the quintessence of nostalgia, while the cast (which includes Carmen Pieraccini and Steven McNicoll on fine form) is unquestionably up to the mark.
The play’s the thing, however, and Roper’s (with songs by David Anderson) is so sentimentally saccharine that it seems to have been chiselled from a pillar of sugar. More a collection of music hall skits than a well-made-play, it had the Kirkcaldy audience laughing in advance of (its greatest comedic hit) the “Galloway’s mince” story. Such is the affection the play has accumulated over the last three decades that to say one doesn’t like it is equivalent to breaking wind in church. I beg your pardon, therefore, because sitting in an adoring audience for The Steamie makes me feel like I’ve turned up at a Star Trek convention in a Chewbacca costume.
For tour dates for The Steamie, visit: thesteamieplay.com
Ian McDiarmid gives a nuanced performance as Enoch Powell in What Shadows