In the first scene of Winsome Pinnock’s new play, an actor, Lou and an artist/ teacher, Essie, discuss J. M. Turner’s ‘The Slave Ship’. Essie recalls that when she first looked at it, she didn’t even see the bodies, only the vibrant oranges, purples, blues of the sea and sky. It is only when she stops to look, really look that the drowning, shackled limbs of the slaves thrown overboard become visible. Lou sees the painting as yet another example of ‘white savourism’, distracting attention from the suffering of the men, women and children that died to focus on the artist. Essie retorts, ‘It’s art. All it can do is bear witness’.
Rockets and Blue Lights is complex and epic, weaving together narrative threads from the nineteenth century to the present day and exploring themes from the ethics of artistic representation to historical trauma. Yet, while the play feels overwhelming to write about, the experience of watching the play, by turns funny, thought-provoking, and gut-wrenching, is not. It navigates a course through the material through stories, exemplifying the role theatre can play as a means of reanimating history.
The nineteenth-century strand of the play, which follows a Black British family – Lucy, a former slave, Thomas, a sailor, and their daughter Jeanie – is particularly compelling, with emotionally engrossing performances from Rochelle Rose, Karl Collins and Kudzai Sitima. While Thomas attempts to reassure Lucy that ‘slavery is over’ and they should try to move on with their lives, the scars remain, and the violent legacies of slavery in Britain prove impossible to outrun. The contemporary strand, which follows Lou (Kiza Dean) as she is making a film about the Turner painting, refracts this history through another frame. Lou battles racism and sexism within the film industry, as pressure from producers and the older, white male star (played as a toe-curling grotesque by Paul Bradley) reduces her role to centre the white artist.
These metatheatrical scenes raise urgent questions about the ethics of representing the play’s historical material, which ripple outwards into other scenes. The beating of Lou’s character Olu, who is a slave, (powerfully choreographed by fight director Yarit Dor) is deftly revealed to be stage violence, skewering what Lou calls the ‘torture porn’ such films revel in. However, the first act of Pinnock’s play closes with a ‘real’ punishment beating of the sailor Thomas. This both sickeningly reasserts the violence of this history and cleverly unsettles the boundaries between Pinnock’s project and the film within the play.
The structure of Pinnock’s play brilliantly reveals time to be non-linear, permeable. Lou complains to the director of the film, ‘We’re always ghosts’. Ghosts abound in Pinnock’s play, from Turner’s mother, spouting invective and languidly waving a mermaid tail, to Lou’s dying grandfather, who gets up from his deathbed to regale her with memories of coming to Britain on the Windrush. Yet, beyond the moments of magical realism, there are also more corporeal echoes between the past and present in Miranda Cromwell’s production. The nineteenth-century and the twenty-first-century characters come together briefly in time and space for an entertaining, joyful dance scene. The careful doubling of parts suggests resonances between the characters, as well as demonstrating the versatility of the wonderful cast. The nineteenth-century characters ghost their twenty-first century counterparts; the body becomes a focus of historical trauma that is shown to continue in the present. This idea is powerfully brought home by a speech in the final scene that references centuries of violence against Black men by white people, concertinaing past and present.
The music (sea shanties, slave songs and rippling guitar interludes), composed and directed by Femi Temowo, also acts as a thread between the times of the play. Laura Hopkins’ stage design is simple and effective; bare wooden boards suggest the slave ship on which so much of the play is set but is versatile enough to conjure the other locations. Upstage is a shallow pool of water, making the sea a constant presence in the play. In the last scenes, as the demarcation between the different time periods breaks down, the water seeps onto the rest of the stage.
With so many characters and different narratives, sometimes the production can lose focus. The underdeveloped, second contemporary storyline, following Essie’s attempts to teach her pupil Billie the history of slavery in Britain, does not reach its intended emotional impact, as it feels rushed. Turner is also given short shrift in his storyline, but this seems a deliberate choice to avoid centring the white artist. The pacing of the production can sometimes be a little frustrating too, with the tension built up by the end of the first half dissipated in the second by a shift in focus.
Nonetheless, Rockets and Blue Lights is the kind of play that reveals more and more of its brilliance the more time you spend with it. The metatheatrical elements allow the play to look back at its audience, asserting the urgency of bearing witness to the history of slavery in Britain, but also questioning whether art can do more than bear witness.
Rockets and Blue Lights is on at the National Theatre till 9th October. More info here.