Theatre review: The Tulip Tree (The love story of Enoch Powell)

Written by Sebastian Whale on 27 March 2015 in Culture
The Tulip Tree provides an insight into Enoch Powell's early life that may have shaped the man he became. The play's writer Oliver Michell explains how he researched the polarising political figure

A tale of unrequited love isn’t often affiliated with the name Enoch Powell. Renowned for his infamous ‘Rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 that brought a growing political career to a grounding halt, Powell’s legacy is highly divisive.

But for Oliver Michell, writer of the play The Tulip Tree, it was another aspect of the former Conservative MP's life that caught his attention.

The Tulip Tree, which debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2013, opens at the Drayton Arms Theatre in Kensington on March 31st. It focuses on a love affair between Powell and a young aristocrat named Barbara Kennedy in 1949; a relationship only one party was privy to.

While writing a novel on an unrelated subject, Michell encountered an extract in Robert Shepherd’s biography of Powell. The passage cited Powell’s “infatuation” with Ms Kennedy nearly two decades prior to the speech that etched his name in political history.

The story prompted Michell to pen a play about the encounter, using the rapid blossoming of a tulip tree in Ms Kennedy’s garden as a fateful symbol of Powell’s emerging love for her.

“The biography contained this short account of a story early on in Powell’s life when he became infatuated with a young woman and convinced himself that they were having a great love affair, that he had proposed to her, and not only that but that he had convinced himself that she had said yes.

“So far as he was concerned they were engaged. The whole thing ended up being a complete fantasy that existed only in his imagination.”

Michell believes this period of Powell’s life has often been overlooked by other observers despite it exposing the man he was to become.

“His relationship with Barbara Kennedy has been largely forgotten. Also, it’s part of his emotional life that is largely unfocussed on and it seemed to me that it was a story that cut to the heart of the kind of man he was.”

While researching the play, Michell went beyond scrutinising interviews carried out during Powell’s life. Not only did he develop a relationship with the daughter and granddaughter of the subject of Powell’s infatuation, he also attended an event at the Albrighton & Woodland hunt in Staffordshire, which Powell was strongly associated with.

Through studying the archives at Churchill College Cambridge, Michell was able to access correspondence between Powell and Ms Kennedy after he had discovered she was engaged to another man. Michell believes Powell’s delusion in these letters might go some way to explaining his approach to frontline politics that followed.

“After she announced her engagement to someone else he came rushing to Staffordshire and confronted her. There are a whole series of letters that he wrote to her at that time, and this is when he is nearly 40 years old; these letters read like the letters of a 15-year-old boy. They’re absolutely delusional in their content – he believes that there is a pledge between the two of them that is just a fantasy.

“So, it seemed to me that far more than any of his political activity this cut to the heart of him psychologically.

“It gave a hint of why he became such an extreme character in later life and why he would just choose a particular path and plough down it to its absolute logical conclusion, even if self-destruction was the consequence.”

Michell believes that Powell’s divisive legacy does not detract from him being a fascinating character study.

“Whatever you think of Powell; whether you feel negatively or positively about him, he is an interesting figure because he rose so quickly in so many different spheres of life. He was regarded as an intellectual prodigy – he had an extremely successful academic career, an extremely successful military career followed by the beginnings of a successful political career, before it all unravelled.

“There is something fascinating about how extreme his life was. He just threw himself into the ground with work throughout his life. So regardless of which camp you’re in - of course there are people who hero worship Enoch Powell and there are people who absolutely detest him - he is an interesting character study regardless.”

Colleagues of Michell believed he would grow increasingly attached to Powell as he became familiar with the intimate details of his life. For Michell, however, the more he uncovered the more negatively he viewed the man at the centre of his piece.

“Many people thought the more research you do the more you’ll find out what a misunderstood figure he was. It was the other way for me; the more I found out about him the more I felt his critics had a lot of substance to their criticism.

“It is principally his views on race. Several people are of the view that the ‘Rivers of blood’ speech isn’t a racist speech, that Powell isn’t a racist. The more you look at the rhetoric that he actually said, if you define racism as ‘do you see people differently according to the colour of his skin’ then there’s not much doubt that he did. He wanted the UK to remain a white country, that’s the substance of what he was saying.

“I also found with Powell that the legend surrounding him was self-created. Although a lot of people regard him as this great genius that foresaw a lot of developments in English politics; he made a lot of fundamental mistakes. I think that was true when he was an academic, true when he was in the army and true of his political career as well.”

The heart of the story is Powell’s realisation of his own self-deception regarding his relationship with a young woman.                                                                   

Only Powell himself knew whether this awakening triggered the events that followed.

The Tulip Tree is showing at the Drayton Arms Theatre from 31st March - 25th April.



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