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.
It is 1789 and a group of convicts in the newly-founded colony of Botany Bay in Australia are assembled to put on a production of George Farquhar’s Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer. The true story of this unlikely theatrical enterprise is the subject of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s award-winning play, Our Country’s Good, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1988 almost exactly 200 years after the events it portrays. The play is a vivid portrait of the volatile new settlement in New South Wales, which raises timeless questions about what makes for a country’s good: the exercise of justice, the iniquities of class, the value of education and culture, and particularly of the redemptive power of theatre itself.
It made complete logical sense to follow our last episode on The Recruiting Officer with this wonderful play, and even more sense to invite Director Matt Beresford back to talk us through it.
George Farquhar’s rollicking Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer is ostensibly a portrait of officers engaged in the nefarious art of impressing men into the army in the country town of Shrewsbury, but it is as much a tale of the local ladies themselves recruiting for lovers and husbands. The classic comic satire of love and war, and sex and deception was first performed at Drury Lane in 1706, and went on to become one of the most frequently performed plays of the 18th century and a staple of education curricula and theatre programming ever since.
Director Matt Beresford joins us to assess the ‘recruiting officers” respective strategies and successes.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
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 …