Winsome Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights first opened in Manchester at the Royal Exchange Theatre last year before it was forced to close after just three previews due to you-know-what. It is now moored in a re-opened world where black history is at the forefront of British consciousness.
Pinnock’s storytelling is inspired by the restless tones of JMW Turner’s 1840 painting Slave Ship and offers a fresh take on the complexities of historical representation. Black narratives from the past and present co-exist to create arresting overlaps in time. In Pinnock’s modern world, actor Lou (Kiza Deen) is cast in a film about Turner titled The Ghost Ship, a project which she initially believes to be giving voice to the enslaved. Devastatingly, she soon realises that the script has been altered in favour of depicting white saviourism.
Meanwhile, back in nineteenth-century London, a family are fighting to find normality post abolition. But when Thomas (Karl Collins) succumbs to the call of the sea, the promise of true freedom is soon broken.
It seems fitting that the production makes its own journey from the largest cotton exchange in the country, docking in London alongside the River Thames. Laura Hopkin’s design certainly makes the audience feel all at sea – a wooden jetty extends to the ocean, and the set pieces look as though they have been pulled from a shipwreck. Slow-motion transitions, although not always as slick as perhaps intended, evoke bodies in water and the passing of time. Injections of blue light reflect the hues of another of Turner’s paintings, from which the name of Pinnock’s play derives.
Pinnock is an exceptional writer, yet the plotting of this production is patchy in places. Turner’s presence in particular feels contrived on occasions, and Paul Bradley’s portrayal of the Victorian artist is somewhat King Lear-esque, which isn’t wholly successful.
Overall, however, the cast brings much feeling to this production. There are moving parallels between Rochelle Rose’s Essie and Lucy, though one is by no means a replication of the other. Deen delivers Lou’s plight with compelling vigour, and Anthony Aje is excellent as Billie, albeit let down by clichéd dialogue. There is a real sense of togetherness amongst the company, which only enhances the chemistry between characters.
Pinnock and director Miranda Cromwell have certainly packed this production full of political interrogation. Torture porn, voyeurism, and white guilt are all tackled amongst moments of humour and compassion. It’s a deeply personal play for many, evidenced by Collins’ final lines as water floods at his feet. His words ripple through the audience as an offering of remembrance, both for those we have lost to violent racism and those we will lose if we ignore repetitions in history.
Rockets and Blue Lights is playing the NT until 9 October. For more information and tickets see the National Theatre’s website.