'Rockets and Blue Lights' at the National Theatre review - a meditative, surrealist work
Two women look at a painting by J. M. W. Turner: The Slave Ship. We can see the painting only through their descriptions: the blood-red sky, the churning waves, the faceless bodies half-submerged in the sea. It is, as playwright Winsome Pinnock has characters meditate at several points in the play, a scene that is all world and no people: the ship, the sky, the ocean. The enslaved people being thrown to their deaths over the side of the ship are deliberately obscured. Pinnock’s new play Rockets and Blue Lights, which had its initial run at the Royal Exchange Manchester cut short by the onset of the pandemic, might be said to attempt the opposite, to locate the people within the world.
It’s a meditative, time-skipping collage of unresolved narratives that called to mind the historical plays of Caryl Churchill or George Wolfe. Though the focus is on people — Lou, a movie star who is struggling with the decision to portray an enslaved woman in a movie about Turner; Turner himself, sneaking away from home to escape memories of his mother; Thomas, a Black Englishman who longs for the sea; Meg, a formerly enslaved woman whose mind cannot accept that she no longer needs to live in fear — it is not quite with an eye to character portraits or psychological exploration. Rather, like the water that laps at the edge of designer Laura Hopkins' jagged shiplap alleyway stage, the narratives bleed into one another, creating ripples and leaving marks.
Director Miranda Cromwell’s staging feels a bit too grounded and literal for Pinnock’s script, which seems to want to float in greater surrealism and abstraction than it is allowed to. In Cromwell’s relatively naturalistic scenes, poetry sometimes becomes non sequitur and narrative threads that are ultimately beside the point are given too much weight. The symbolic resonances of the different timelines and stories do not feel fully sounded out here. But maybe that’s for the best: this is a play that deserves to be revisited and reimagined frequently.
Most of all, in a theatrical landscape that loves to produce American stories about the Black experience, it is a thrill to see a play that directly and explicitly confronts Britain’s history with the slave trade, and the legacy of enslavement for English descendants of colonial brutality. It is a different conversation than the continual productions of American meditations on racism have prompted, and though Pinnock’s dialogue is sometimes blunt, she never settles for pat solutions to centuries-old trauma.
Water leaves ink-dark stains on the pale wood of the stage floor. “Paint me,” “draw me,” are recurring refrains: the yearning to leave a mark, to be more than a faceless figure at the bottom of someone else’s canvas.
Photo credit: Rockets and Blue Lights (Photo by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)