National Theatre (co-produced with the Royal Exchange Theatre) 25 August – 9 October, 2021
Review by Michael McMillan
As the first Black British female writer to have a play produced by the Royal National Theatre (Leave Taking, 1988), Winsome Pinnock brings into focus the lived experience of Black people in Britain. Her Alfred Fagon award-winning play Rockets and Blue Lights is a panoramic story that moves between the 1840s and present day Britain, in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade.
Lou, played by Kiza Deen, is a Black actor celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, who returns to London to film The Ghost Ship, which she sees as an indictment of the slave trade, based on JMW Turner’s painting The Slave Ship. It is 2007, and the bicentenary of the 1807 abolition of the British slave trade has become a ‘themepark’ focused on white saviours. So, when the producers have the film script altered, Lou feels that in this ‘torture porn’ she and her ancestors are being written out of the story and out of history. Moreover, Lou also plays Captain Sola Andrews in the TV sci-fi series Space Colony Mars, and for her the programme’s title signals the colonial tropes inscribed in popular culture which are explored as a subtext in Pinnock’s play. Alongside Lou’s story, is the story of Essie (Rochelle Rose), a Black art teacher on a school field trip with her students, and of Billie (Anthony Aje), who as a young Black man is tragically affected by Turner’s work.
The action switches to the 1840s, and we follow a disheveled Turner as he cons his way onto a merchant ship, the Glory, so he can be with his muse, the sea. Onboard, he meets Thomas (Karl Collins), a Black sailor set on going to sea against his wife Lucy’s wishes. She, like her husband, has been formerly enslaved and believes the journey to be cursed, given that the Glory was previously a slave ship. Thomas’s brother, Joseph, a former sailor, is the Joseph Johnson who performed on London’s streets wearing an enormous ship as a hat. Through this historical figure, Pinnock reflects on the forgotten lives of Victorian Black Londoners.
The play is not about the Zong massacre of 1781, when sick and dying enslaved people were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage to claim the insurance on them, an incident and famous court case thought to have inspired Turner’s painting, but rather about how the subject and stories of the slave trade continue to haunt our contemporary lives. The Glory does indeed end up smuggling human cargo from the coast of Africa, and Lucy believes Thomas to have been lost at sea. He has, however, been re-enslaved, and observes poignantly that he is not surprised to be feared, because ‘I survived the slave castles at Bonny, the Zong and Baptist church massacres. I survived the fires of New Cross and Grenfell; death in custody. Through all this, I lived.’
The director Miranda Cromwell deftly supports a multi-racial and multi-role ensemble who bring visceral emotional power to playing Lou, Essie, Billie and Lucy. Cathy Tyson brings a rage beneath the surface to her playing of Turner’s maid, Danby; and among other characters there is Meg, who like so many enslaved women killed her baby, and becomes in the play a spiritual voice of history in the present. An arresting soundscape of drums and other instruments is created by composer Femi Temowo, and set designer Laura Hopkins uses water that slowly engulfs the stage to provide a tactile quality to the experience.
Originally, the play was staged at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, but was cancelled after only three previews due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now at the National Theatre, the revival testifies to Pinnock and the production team’s resilience. As a descendent of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, Pinnock draws on that emotional well to skillfully interweave the past through the present with empathy and compassion, while constantly asking the question: who gets to write history, or indeed paint it, and who is written out? Rockets and Blues Lights bears witness to the human spirit and possibility of hope, because wherever there is oppression, there is resistance.