014 – Rockets and Blue Lights, by Winsome Pinnock
Playwright Winsome Pinnock cited JMW Turner’s painting The Slave Ship as one of the inspirations for her powerful new play Rockets and Blue Lights. The painting depicts a ship foundering in a tumultuous sea – at first sight a typical Turner seascape. Except if you look closely you will pick out in the foreground figures drowning in the sea. Look even more closely and you will realise that these are slaves with irons on their limbs who have been thrown overboard from the ship. The painting was based on the notorious Zong massacre of 1781, which Pinnock takes as a dramatic starting point for her thoughtful and moving re-examination of the legacy of the slave trade. The play brings some of the terrible history of the slave trade to life, to give voice to those whose record has been lost to history. It also merges the past and the present to prompt us to consider the continuing legacy of discrimination.
Rockets and Blue Lights was in preview to open at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in March this year, when the Covid19 lockdown cruelly closed all of our theatres. Happily, the cast were able to re-purpose their performances to broadcast it as a radio play as part of Radio 3’s series of Plays in Lockdown transmitted over the summer. The play also received the 2018 Alfred Fagon Award, which is granted annually for the best new play by a Black British playwright of Caribbean or African descent, resident in the United Kingdom. It is particularly apt that we are talking about it during Black History Month because I am certain that this play will be performed, read and studied for many years to come.
I am especially delighted and honoured to welcome the play’s author, Winsome Pinnock to the podcast.
Her plays include: A Hero’s Welcome, Talking in Tongues, Mules, Water and One Under. Her break through play Leave Taking which premiered at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1986 has been produced four times since in major UK theatres, including at the National Theatre in London, where in 1994 it was the first play written by a black British woman to have been produced there. It was revived at the Bush in 2018, and still speaks to the immigrant experience of building a life in a new country, while carrying the culture of where they came from.
Winsome has been a visiting fellow at Cambridge University, and a writer in residence at Holloway Prison, Clean Break theatre company, the Royal Court, Kuumba Arts Community Centre, the Tricycle Theatre, and the Royal National Theatre Studio.
The Footnotes to our Rockets and Blue Lights episode explore the Turner paintings that partly inspired the play, the Zong massacre that inspired Turner, the ghosts that haunt the play, and the litany of victims that Thomas pays tribute to in his closing speech.
Tennessee Williams breakthrough playThe Glass Menagerie is a very personal portrait of Williams’ own flawed family. It first opened on Broadway in March 1945 to rave reviews, it’s box office success catapulting its 34-year old author to fame and fortune. The play is now a standard on educational curricula and theatrical programs, loved for its heart-wrenching portrayal of the hopes and disappointments of its characters, and admired for its theatrical technique and poetic dramatic language.
The play was brilliantly staged in 2013 on Broadway in a production directed by John Tiffany, which was revived in 2017 in London’s West End, and I am absolutely delighted to be joined in this episode by the director himself, John Tiffany, to share his insights into this enduring classic.
It is 2:00 am, and George and Martha have invited a young couple for after-party drinks to their home on a New England university campus. What follows is arguably the most extended and vitriolic marital argument ever staged. Over four hours of drunken skirmishing George and Martha tear strips off each other and their young guests, in a terrifying mix of games playing and truth telling, fuelled by anger, shame, disappointment, hatred and possibly even love. As the hostilities intensify both couples are forced to face unvarnished and difficult truths about themselves and their relationships. This is American playwright Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened on Broadway in 1962, and was greeted by both moral outrage and critical acclaim. Both types of review contributed to its run-away box-office success, and led to the 1966 Oscar-winning film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Joining me to survey the damage of this blistering marital battle are John Mitchinson and Andy MIller, the co-hosts of the award-winning podcast Backlisted, which as its strap line declares “gives new life to old books”.
It is 1759 in East Anglia. A child has been murdered and a young woman has been convicted to hang for the crime. She ‘pleads her belly’ and a jury of matrons must determine if she is truly with child and thus may escape the gallows. Lucy Kirkwood’s powerful play The Welkin, is an historical thriller and a tense courtroom drama, as well as a vivid representation of the real burdens that women carry in a patriarchal world of any age.
The Welkin premiered at the National Theatre in January 2020 before its run was cruelly cut short by the first Covid lockdown. I’m delighted to be joined by the author herself to talk about her rich new play.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …