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.
One Podcast Two Plays! Carlo Goldoni’s Commedia dell’Arte classic A Servant to Two Masters and Richard Bean’s hilarious update One Man Two Guvnors. We explore all of the ingredients of the original play in the tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, as well as how Bean translated these so successfully into his smash hit at the National Theatre. Writer and director Justin Greene joins me to sample this multi-course theatrical banquet. (Commedia afficionados will appreciate the gourmet references!).
The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.
The main characters in Nina Raine’s play Consent are barristers contesting a brutal rape case. As the case unfolds the lawyers’ marriages come unravelled and they themselves cross the line of honour or even of the law. Consent explores some of the most charged issues of our time: the sources of sexual betrayal and violence, the ambiguities of consent, and the failings of the justice system to account proportionally or sensitively with cases of sexual abuse. I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the author of Consent, Nina Raine, and by actor Adam James, who appeared in the National Theatre production in the role of Jake.
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 …