The Tulip Tree
by Oliver Michell
A very interesting peek into the early life of Enoch Powell, following the now well-established dramatic interest in characters who are intellectually brilliant but socially handicapped (e.g. the new BBC Sherlock, House, or the Dr Reid character in Criminal Minds). Here we see Powell in his 30s, already outstanding at whatever he turned his mind to – full professor of Ancient Greek at age 25, a war-time trajectory from private soldier to the youngest Brigadier in the British Army, published poet, on the brink of his political career – spending a weekend at an unnamed country house in order to hunt. Powell has fallen in love with the daughter of the house, the beautiful and lissome Barbara (an icon worthy of a Betjeman poem), and is unaware that he has a rival in one of his fellow-guests, the rambunctious, opinionated, infantile but fundamentally good-humoured Paul.
The plot turns on how Powell sees himself, as opposed to how he comes across to other people. He’s something of a square peg – didn’t go to public school, doesn’t know how to tie a bow-tie – but Paul and his close friend Edward, after some initial teasing and bullying, seem remarkably accepting of the odd, proud, egotistical, nervous, intense Powell, though Barbara’s parents don’t care for him very much. Edward attempts to advise him that his gift for Barbara (a copy of his own edition of Herodotus, in Greek) is weird and inappropriate, but he can’t see it. He equally can’t grasp why Barbara would prefer Paul, a bear of little brain, to his brilliant, tormented self, until a devastating éclaircissement in the final scene puts the matter beyond doubt. The play suggests that this inability to empathize, to predict what his fellow-humans will think and feel, was responsible for his effective sabotage of his own political career with his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968.
Using brilliantly selected quotes from Powell’s own poems, the writer portrays a highly intelligent, complex man, capable simultaneously of celebrating his own brilliance, and profoundly wishing he had been killed in the war (these are genuine quotes from Powell) – someone who ultimately was not a reptilian political animal but a man of principle both too self-involved and too unbending to come out on top in the murky swamp of Westminster. Strong and subtle writing, competent performances from likeable young chaps. Get in there quick though – the tiny Burton-Taylor was packed last night and I heard the words sold out at the weekend.