Writer: Winsome Pinnock
Director: Miranda Cromwell
Look very closely at one of JMW Turner’s famous seascapes and what do you see? Probably at least one sailing ship which could be a slave ship and, if so, are there any signs of the suffering below its decks? Winsome Pinnock’s play, first performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, is built around the premise that inconvenient truths are usually hidden away in history as in art, and that slavery is an extremely inconvenient truth.
Lou (Kiza Deen) is a successful black actor working on the set of a film about Turner. She becomes obsessed by her roots and is determined that scenes in the film relating to her character’s back story must not be cut from the script. The play then leaps back to 1840, shortly after the abolition of slavery in Great Britain and its territories. We find Turner embarking on one of his voyages and black communities struggling to come to terms with freedom in a world in which slavery thrives elsewhere and new forms of enslavement are emerging.
As both Turner in the past and the actor playing him in the present, Paul Bradley is a grouchy figure, paying little regard to anything outside his work. Karl Collins and Rochelle Rose stand out in a strong company, giving impassioned performances as Thomas and Lucy, a 19th Century couple who are determined to build a solid family life in an uncertain world. The couple’s daughter, Jess (Kudzai Sitima) is bouncy and optimistic, but, in the 21st Century, a young artist, Billie (Anthony Aje) lacks confidence in his own talent, perhaps reflecting the writer’s frustration that some who are young, gifted and black are still held back by ghosts from the past.
The play is hugely ambitious in setting out to condense events covering almost 200 years into little more than two hours of human drama. The split narrative is both friend and foe to the writer; it allows her to give clear modern relevance to depictions of atrocities from the past, but repeated jumps backwards and forwards in time make the play feel episodic and dilute the intensity of the stories that are unfolding. Occasionally, Pinnock’s approach seems scattershot; she misses some of her targets, but, when she hits, she does so with shattering force.
Performed in the round in the National’s small Dorfman Theatre, director Miranda Cromwell’s production creates powerful, lingering images to match those in the writing. Haunting music composed by Femi Temowo adds flavour and depth. One minor criticism is that the doubling up of roles in overdone; for example, Cathy Tyson and Matthew Seadon-Young have four roles each, which makes it very difficult to identify with (or indeed identify) their characters.
Setting aside its flaws, Rockets and Blue Lights shines brightly and brings into sharp focus aspects of our past and present that are too often hidden away in dark corners.
Runs until 9 October 2021