THEATRE REVIEW | What Shadows, Birmingham Rep
✭✭✭✭ | What ShadowsCREDIT: Ellie Kurttz
Is prejudice innate or learned? Is racism okay if everyone is? And is there such thing as racism equality? These are some of the questions that What Shadows evoked, and are still riddling my mind.
In 1968, Enoch Powell made a speech in Birmingham that created a fissure along the street where it was famously delivered and divided a nation with words that scarred those who became a target of it. The Birmingham Rep put on the production of What Shadows and a troubling moment of history was resurfaced.
In the Studio Theatre, real trees had been planted to give the idea of wilderness and lighting cast shadows on the wall for different moments of the play. I found myself staring at them a lot to figure out their purpose, and it dawned on me, halfway through, that the trees were probably the same ones that had witnessed history across the decades that the play was set in. They were the shadows of time.
Cast-wise, each performer was equal in acting craftsmanship. Most actors multipart played different roles showcasing dexterity and natural flair, which contributed to an extremely believable production that took you on a chronological journey of identity. Chris Hannan, the writer of What Shadows, summoned a mixture of feelings in the audience, and without bias, created a story that made the audience ask and debate inwardly how they felt about their own identity: what is natural for human beings to feel? And, is double standards of racism correct?
Ian Mcdiarmid not only looked the part but his physicality, as well as his tone of voice, were uncannily accurate. The power and fragility of Enoch was brought out by Ian in a subliminal way, and it was one of those performances that stunned you and made you feel incredibly glad to have had the opportunity to watch it.
Bríd Brennan played Enoch’s wife, Pamela, and Sofia Nicol, an unrivalled genius of the early 90’s, which were played in a delicate and powerful way. The actor who stood out for me for his passionate, strong and utterly convincing portrayal of the Sultan was Phaldut Sharma. When he begged for his wife, Grace Hughes (Paula Wilcox), to remember him was close to tear-jerking, and the racial divide was felt the strongest when he gave a speech about serving with the Punjabi regiment and in the British Army as well as being a comrade of Enoch’s, and then Enoch’s dismissal and belittling of the sacrifices made by his regiment brought racism home. A superb performance I will never forget.
Paula Wilcox did a sterling job as Grace Hughes, a lady who lost her husband during the war, and embodied, with impeccable skill, a racist resident in Birmingham who sided with Enoch’s views, but when she got to know the Sultan, the racial tension fell away, and left room for love.