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Review: Rockets and Blue Lights at the National Theatre

Winsome Pinnock’s powerful and timely exploration of black British history

10 September, 2021 — By Lucy Popescu

Cathy Tyson and Paul Bradley in Rockets and Blue Lights. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Rockets and Blue Lights
National Theatre, Dorfman
☆☆☆☆

JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship is the inspiration behind Winsome Pinnock’s powerful play about the legacy of Britain’s slave trade.

Some believe Turner’s oil painting depicted the horrific Zong massacre in 1781. Faced with a shortage of drinking water, the crew threw overboard 130 enslaved Africans so that the shipowners could claim insurance on “property” loss.

Another of Turner’s works gives the play its title. Rockets and Blue Lights opens in the present day in a gallery where two strangers, a black actress, Lou (Kiza Deen), and an art teacher, Essie (Rochelle Rose), contemplate Turner’s paintings and the idea of art bearing witness.

Pinnock then tracks back and forth between two periods and several plotlines.

In 1840, Lucy (Rose) and Thomas (Karl Collins), who have lived through the abolition of slavery, try to come to terms with what it means to be free. Lucy is haunted by the past and Thomas has to make one last voyage on a merchant ship. Also on board is Turner (Paul Bradley).

Another storyline involves scenes from a contemporary film about a slave ship. Lou, the leading actress, finds her role increasingly marginalised by Roy (Bradley), the actor playing Turner. He ensures the white artist’s narrative eclipses that of the black woman.

Directed by Miranda Cromwell, Pinnock’s sprawling epic attempts to cram a lot into two-and-a-half hours and it is sometimes difficult to keep up with all the subplots and different characters – most of the actors play several parts.

However, this timely exploration of black British history, the trauma and oppression endured over the centuries, and the continued prejudice and violence faced by many black people today clearly resonates – the woman beside me sobbed for most of its duration and the cast received a standing ovation.

Laura Hopkins’ period costumes are beautifully detailed (down to their muddied hems) and her simple set is exceptionally versatile. Whitewashed wooden boards, stained with patches of black paint, and portable furniture, manage to convey busy docks, an artist’s studio, a film set and a ship’s deck, while the final image of water seeping over everything is unforgettable.

Until October 9
nationaltheatre.org.uk

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