It is 49 years since Enoch Powell’s famous “Rivers of Blood” speech, attacking black and other non-white immigrants from across the Commonwealth. The speech spurred a wave of violence and racist rhetoric across the UK. Chris Hannan’s new play, flits between 1968 and 1992, when an elderly Powell is approached by two academics writing about identity – national, ethnic, intellectual, and more. There’s a broad, nuanced discussion to be had here, and Hannan is determined to have it.

The best thing about What Shadows is doubtless Ian MacDiarmid’s portrayal of Enoch Powell, which is as sensitive as it is impressively accurate. MacDiarmid and director Roxana Silbert resist any urge to turn Powell into a straw bigot – you can’t tell me the temptation isn’t there when you’ve got Actual Emperor Palpatine playing a notorious racist – and they manage to tread the line of making him explicable and even sympathetic, even without removing the force of, or reaction to, his rhetoric.

That said, he is the most well-rounded character of them all. The majority of the rest seemed to me to be collections of attributes designed to deliver an argument: the Pakistani man enamoured of Englishness even as it excludes him; the white woman unselfconsciously denouncing “the coloureds” in the living room of her Barbadian neighbour’s house. Most disappointingly, Amelia Donkor’s black female historian – a tiny enough demographic as it is – seems more to be a foil for Powell than anything else. Their climactic scene together feels more like an essay read aloud than a clash of vivid characters. Not that this was Donkor’s fault in the least; the material gives her little room to manoeuvre.

Equally arcane (to me, at least) was the choice of 1992 for the later scenes. Since Powell died in 1998 from Parkinson’s disease, presumably it was necessary for him to be alive to participate in the finale. But the discussion of identity has the fingerprint of the late 2010s, and to conflate that with the early ‘90s seems to give 1992 too much credit.

There is something rather interesting about taking a play about the nature of Englishness to Edinburgh. Englishness is, after all, I think a more difficult thing to define than Scottishness. Is it Percy Shelley and picnics by the Thames and A. E. Houseman’s “blue remembered hills”? Is Englishness inescapably nostalgic, or tied up with various waves of fundamentalism, from the Protestant fundamentalism of the Reformation onwards? Who gets to define what Englishness is?

Silbert is no stranger to these ideas – earlier this year she directed the touring production of Anita and Me. I can see her fascination with the discussion What Shadows is trying to have. But where Anita’s strengths lay in its characters, its forging of personal connection, What Shadows forgoes that entirely. It’s a good thesis, to be sure – but in the end it is more thesis than play.

Photos courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic.

What Shadows runs at The Lyceum until 23rd September 2017.