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.
David Mamet’s play Oleanna about the abuse of patriarchal power caused intense controversy and divided audiences when it was first produced in 1992. It is now being revived at the Theatre Royal Bath. How will we see the sensitive issues it raises differently nearly 30 years on in the light of the #MeToo movement? The acclaimed director of this new production, Lucy Bailey, joins me to explore this explosive work.
Note: this episode contains some strong language.
Kenneth Cranham and Claire Skinner c Simon Annand
Florian Zeller’s disturbing and moving play The Father presents a piercing portrait of a family living with dementia. Anyone who has witnessed the cruel effects of the disease will recognise painful truths in the play, and everyone will be unsettled by its inventive dramatic form. The Father premiered in Bath in 2014 before award-winning runs in London and on Broadway. It has now also been made into a feature film with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman due for UK release in January 2021. I’m delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the renowned playwright and screenwriter Sir Christopher Hampton, who translated the original play and co-wrote the film’s screenplay
Photo: Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman at the Young Vic (c. Brinkoff Mogenburg)
Arthur Miller’s portrait of an ordinary American family in post-war Brooklyn has become an enduring presence on stages around the world and in educational curriculums. The splintering of the Loman family became emblematic of the personal costs and challenges of the American Dream, but Miller’s play has also remained popular and relevant because of its innovative form and emotional power. We’re delighted to be joined by Dr Stephen Marino, founding editor of The Arthur Miller Journal to explore this dramatic classic.
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 …