“Rockets and Blue Lights”: National, Dorfman

Alice Grahame on the South Bank

Winsome Pinnock’s powerful drama looks at the impact of the unfinished business of the transatlantic slave trade, from the perspective of both those recently freed in the 1800s and those dealing with the legacy today. The play won her the Alfred Fagon Award (the leading award for black British playwrights) in 2018.

 

Luke Wilson and Kiza Deen. Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

 

Rockets and Blue Lights encompasses two main scenarios in different eras. In the present day, actors are preparing a fictionalized film in which the great British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner goes to sea and witnesses the horror of slavery. Leading young actress Lou (Kiza Deen) is a soap star, exploring her heritage and contemplating her feelings about the past. The other main scenario is an altogether more disturbing tale, set in nineteenth-century London shortly after abolition, about the devastating effect of the enslavement industry on one family. We see a tight-knit loving family (played by Rochelle Rose, Karl Collins, and Kudzai Sitima) torn apart in a heart-breaking way because entrepreneurial merchant seafarers refuse to give up the trade, tricking unsuspecting sailors into enslavement.

The focal point is a painting by Turner called “The Slave Ship”. Originally titled “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On”, it was displayed at the 72nd Royal Academy Exhibition in 1840. On first glance, it is a seascape with a typically lush Turner sky and foaming waves. However, a closer inspection reveals outlines of bodies, limbs, and shackles in the water. The painting was inspired by a horrific real-life event – the Zong massacre of 1781, in which more than 130 enslaved people were thrown overboard by shipowners who then claimed insurance for their lost “goods”.

The play asks awkward questions such as how do we, as modern viewers, process atrocities depicted in art and is there value in bearing witness, taking time to acknowledge what was done by and to our ancestors. Even if those involved were not our personal forebears they are part of our national story. This brutal history is what made Britain the way it is today. We see this in conversations around how we remember the past and how we treat relics of violence like the statues of slave traders Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye.

 

The ensemble. Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

 

According to British history books, the slave trade was abolished in 1807 while in 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom. But slavery didn’t suddenly end. The trade had been in place since the 1600s. Fortunes had been made. Those benefitting from it had much to lose and resisted its demise. On abolition a new apprenticeship system forced enslaved people to work 45 hours a week unpaid, for a further six years. Clandestine slave trading continued after 1833, within the British Empire and beyond.
Thanks to a Treasury tweet in 2018 and the work of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London, we now know about the vast sums of money paid by the British government in compensation to slave owners. But the slaves themselves received no such compensation and the collective trauma of enslaved people and later generations is one of the things that this play addresses.

Rockets and Blue Lights was previously staged at the Manchester Royal Exchange early last year but was sadly disrupted by the Covid pandemic. It was a joy to see it back in the theatre and on the night we visited something happened that reminded us of the excitement and fragility of live theatre. Paul Bradley, billed to play Turner and creepy actor Roy, was unwell, but accomplished theatre actor Lloyd Hutchinson proved to be a worthy replacement.

As his first scene depicts a rehearsal, the cast were all holding scripts, disguising the fact that Hutchinson was actually reading the part. It is a testimony to his delivery and the power of imagination that we stopped noticing that this major character had script in hand throughout the show.

 

Cathy Tyson and Paul Bradley. Photo credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

 

Staged in the round, Miranda Cromwell’s direction guides us between the two main time periods, occasionally blending the two. For example, in a dance scene two Victorian characters perform a quadrille while their modern counterparts wiggle to a techno beat.

Violence is suggested rather than graphic. This avoids what Lou describes as lazy and unhelpful “slavery porn”. Laura Hopkins’s unimposing design gives an impression of a ship, with scrubbed floorboards, weathered iron furniture, a spiral staircase suggesting a Jacob’s Ladder, and a puddle reminding us of the sea.
We leave the theatre feeling that the play has shed light on a part of history that many in Britain are ignorant of – that slavery was a much bigger part of the economy and everyday life than many of us realize, and it didn’t end in 1833. Towards the end Karl Collins as Thomas, sailor and husband to an ex-slave, gives a speech about subsequent injustices faced by black British communities, including the New Cross house fire, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and Grenfell Tower fire; a reminder that the issues contained in Rockets and Blue Lights are very much ongoing.