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.
Winsome Pinnock is an award-winning British playwright of Jamaican heritage.
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.
Winsome recommended Misty by Arinze Kene.
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.
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Shakespeare’s devastating exploration of race, reputation and jealousy, The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice was a popular success when it was first performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but in the centuries since it has provoked a wide range of responses as successive generations have grappled with the racial identity of the eponymous character. As we record this episode a new production of Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London views the play’s treatment of race through a contemporary lens, setting the play within the London Metropolitan police force, a topical environment for racial inspection.
I am privileged to welcome as my guest someone especially qualified to help us navigate the tricky waters of Shakespeare’s play, Farah Karim-Cooper, Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kings College London, and the author of The Great White Bard – Shakespeare, Race and the Future.
Ken Nwosu as Othello and Ralph Davies as Iago
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Photo by Johan Persson
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I am joined by Matthew Dunster, the director of a scintillating new production of the play at the Young Vic in London, who can help us answer those questions about Pinter’s challenging classic.
Lisa Diveney as Ruth at the Young Vic – photo by Dean Chalkley.
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Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, helps us review Ibsen’s unflinching drama.
Hattie Morahan as Helene Alving at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London, December 2023. Photo by Marc Brenner.