What Shadows

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Cooper

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Four stars

THE sound and thunder of some very English and very heavy weather opens Chris Hannan's play, that puts disgraced Tory MP Enoch Powell at the heart of a debate about whether our differences can ever be reconciled. Powell, of course, was the bilingual, classics quoting scholar, whose so-called rivers of blood speech in 1968 was a dog-whistle to the sort of legitimised intolerance which has looked creepingly familiar of late.

One of those who suffered is Rose, the woman of colour who grew up conscious of Powell's demonisation of her kind. As played by Amelia Donkor, Rose turns out to have a few prejudices of her own, even as she forms an unholy alliance with Sofia, the right wing academic she usurped. Moving between the late 1960s' build-up to Powell's speech and 1992, Roxana Silbert's new staging of her 2016 Birmingham Rep production frames the action against Ti Green's tree-lined urban idyll and monumental concrete walls. Louis Price's impressionistic video projections set a tone that might be called elegiac if its subjects weren't so alarmingly current.

Ian McDiarmid gives a bravura turn as Powell, leading a cast of seven as a die-hard sentimentalist who weeps at King Lear and who, more amusingly, might these days be labelled a grammar Nazi if nothing else. It's a big, wordy, important play. Ideas of belief, intolerance and faith, no matter how corrupted, ping pong their way after some kind of reconciliation. When McDiarmid performs Powell's actual speech at the close of the first act, it's electric enough. It's his unrepentant stance at the play's end, however, that flags up a form of England's dreaming that lingers still.