Rockets and Blue Lights at the National Theatre
Winsome Pinnock’s haunting play Rockets and Blue Lights wades into unsettled waters (both literally and metaphorically) in this spirited production at the National Theatre. Raising up the disavowed history and trauma of slavery, the playwright decidedly commingles the past and the present to embark on a tempestuous voyage through its living legacies.
In the present day, young, successful actor Lou (Kiza Deen) is haunted by unheard voices emerging from her latest film’s subject matter: the artist JMW Turner and his 1840 portrait The Slave Ship. Meanwhile, back in the 19th Century, black Londoners Lucy (Rochelle Rose), Thomas (Karl Collins) and daughter Jess (Kudzai Sitima) deal with the consequences of emancipation in a country that has barely abolished slavery.
Pushing past the white gaze (of Turner’s work), the playwright steers the audience through a reflection on the struggles of race, representation and freedom that resonates across the eras. “Do you live in better times?” a character from the past asks Lou. Her silence, combined with what the audience has seen of the actor’s own fight to express, create and assert herself, is telling. While surfacing issues over class, culture and power (over both time periods), the play’s heart is discovered in Lucy and Thomas’s family unit. Through wit, warmth and powerfully affectionate performances from Rose, Collins, Sitima and Cathy Tyson, Pinnock makes these lives central in all their joys, promises and sorrows.
The entire company (splitting 25 characters between ten actors) are uniformly terrific in bringing real pathos, humour and pain to the myriad of historical, modern and imaginary figures that populate the stage. Miranda Cromwell’s effective direction helps navigate the periods, places and peoples while also creating evocative moments of spectacle – especially in scenes that flow the timelines together. Laura Hopkins’s chipped, spectral-white deck stage is sploshed ominously ink-black when wet. Highlighted beautifully in Amy Mae’s lighting design (balmy oranges to ethereal blues) and ambiently scored by musician Femi Tomowo’s acoustic compositions and choral work, the space’s atmosphere transports the audience completely.
Yet, Pinnock swirls so many currents of black history and experience together that it bloats the drama, even despite the two-hour-20-minute runtime. In the play’s final moments, as water rushes creepily forward to drown the stage, the incisive, emotive treatment of its central themes have been diffused to a lessening effect. Nevertheless, Rockets and Blue Lights is an impassioned, disquieting reckoning with those histories long submerged and signals how they still live on today.
Rockets and Blue Lights is at the National Theatre from 25th August until 9th October 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.