REVIEW: Rockets and Blue Lights, The Dorfman National Theatre

Paul T Davies reviews Winsome Pinnock’s play Rockets and Blue Lights now playing at the National Theatre.

Rockets and Blue Lights
The company of Rockets and Blue Lights. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Rockets and Blue Lights
The Dorfman Theatre
National Theatre
4 Stars

In May 1840, J M W Turner exhibited two new paintings at the Royal Academy, “Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water”, and “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying- Typhoon Coming On”. The latter is now commonly known as “The Slave Ship”, the whereabouts of the former is unknown. No bodies or people of colour are in the The Slave Ship, there are swirling clouds, a turbulent sea, bathed in a golden glow from which, near the ship, human hands imperceptivity emerge. It’s from this perspective Winsome Pinnock weaves a fascinating, swirling, urgent play about the representation of black people in culture, art and history.

Rockets and Blue Lights
Cathy Tyson and paul Bradley in Rockets and Blue Lights. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Our guide though this is Lou/Oli, a performance of beautiful fragility and strength in equal measure by Kiza Deen, a successful actress who returns form the States to appear in a film called The Ghost Ship, about Turner and Slavery on the ship The Glory. She is famous for playing the captain of another kind of ship, a star ship, in a hugely popular sci-fi serial. (One prominent episode features a cargo of drones, one of which tries to escape, this layering the story even more.) She sees movement in Turner’s painting, and Pinnock segues superbly between fact and fiction, past and present, imagined history and real.

National Theatre
The company of Rockets and Blue Lights. Photo” Brinkhoff Mogenburg

That history and culture is owned by white men is deftly scored by the fact that, “It’s always about Turner!”, a point well made when Paul Bradley gives a wonderful, layered performance as both Turner and the humble bragger actor Roy. Like al great works of art, the text is layered beautifully, scenes shift cleverly so that at various points you are unsure whether you are watching history or the filming of The Ghost Ship. The ensemble is terrific, Rochelle Rose excellent as Essie and, in particular, Lucy, who carries her history on her body in the form of branding and scars from her time enslaved, and Karl Collins tells Thomas’s story superbly, bringing us to a conclusion of huge compassion and anger that closes the play on an emotional high, bringing together the recent history of the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Rockets and Blue Lights
Karl Collins and Rochelle Rose. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

It could have fallen into chaos, (The story of young pupil Billie may be one layer too many, for example), but Miranda Cromwell’s strong direction allows the clarity to shine though whilst also giving the play it’s lighter, enjoyable, free moments. (Excellent movement direction by Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster.) It’s a passionate argument about the rights of representation, who owns history and culture and who tells it, and what happens when that culture is rightly reclaimed. This is underlined by Laura Hopkins’s beautiful costume and set design, the water seeping in but never overwhelming the action or discussion, always a sinister presence.

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